Brocante bus-stop

It's no ordinary coach trip. Twice a year James Edwards takes 40 English enthusiasts to the Vincennes `brocante', a huge antiques fair on a racecourse east of Paris.
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The Independent Online
When a coachload of English crosses the Channel to Paris, it is usually for a sporting event such as the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe or a match in the Five Nations tournament. But when the travel operator James Edwards takes a 45-seater over, it is more likely to be full of farmers or antiques fanatics than rugby fans.

For Edwards specialises in alternative tours. He organises wine and cuisine weekends, which take in eel farms, he sets up specialist farming and floristry tours and is even thinking of breaking into mushroom-hunting for fans of edible fungi. Twice a year, he also organises a trip to Paris for the six-monthly antique fair, or brocante, at Vincennes racecourse to the east of the capital.

Last weekend, about 30 people went to Paris in the hope of finding a few old treasures which had finally made their way out of the attic of some French chateau. Ages varied from mid-twenties to mid-sixties, but most were already "in the trade". They included a cabinet-maker, a gilder, a French polisher and a whole host of antique dealers, as well as a retired barmaid.

It's usually the early bird that finds a forgotten heirloom. In England fairs generally start at about 7am, but well before then avid collectors will be scouring the stands with torches for their finds. Those who value their sleep will be pleased to know that the French don't start quite so early. When we turned up at Vincennes at 8am, the brocante was only just getting into its swing.

The previous day, Edwards had taken the group round Paris's three flea markets - Vanves, Montreuil and Clignancourt - and apparently I had missed some treats. Eileen Mahon, a part-time dealer in fabrics from Hampton Wick, had spotted a stall with about 40 vintage Chanel garments at Vanves. Jackets were going for 4,000F (pounds 440) and there was a whole host of old Chanel handbags, shoes and a bit of jewellery. "There is lots of great stuff on the markets in Paris," she enthuses. "Beautiful black crepe dresses and things from the Thirties and Forties. You just don't see that in England. I think that people must hang onto things a lot longer here."

Sali Morant, who owns an antiques shop in Penhurst near Tonbridge in Kent, was equally enthusiastic about the Montreuil market. "It's the best one I know for clothes," she asserts. "It's very raggy and some people may be put off by this, but there are heaps of garments. You can find great kimonos. There are also a few vintage clothes stands, even if they are becoming a lot rarer now."

Clignancourt was a lot less popular. "I find it vastly discouraging," says Christine Evans, an antiques dealer from Sevenoaks. "Things are 10 times more expensive than in England. I don't even bother to ask the price because I know I can't afford it."

However, for Edwards, simply visiting the Paris flea markets does not constitute an antiques trip. "They are too over-the-top and too touristy. What you need to find is a real antiques fair." He had already been to Vincennes twice before and there is nothing he likes more than digging out unknown events. "Any fool can organise a trip to Versailles. I like to do things that need a certain amount of research."

He is certainly not out to make a quick buck. He will not, for example, take any more than 40 people on a coach for an antiques trip so that there will be room to take finds back. The trip to Paris came in at well under pounds 100 for the transport and two nights in a hotel - a bargain in anyone's eyes, and his customers are certainly not complaining.

"It's excellent value for money," says retired barmaid, Molly Potts. "Plus, you get picked up from everywhere, so you don't have to carry your stuff round."

As soon as we enter the fair at Vincennes, the buying starts in earnest. There are hundreds of stands, which vary greatly in quality. There is everything from Eric Cantona calendars and cheap watches to great antique furniture and glassware. Sali Morant is looking for fabrics and within two minutes she is delving into a blue container to pick out a piece of red gingham. "Now, that's very French," she says. Then she snatches up a set of old red and white porcelain jars for the kitchen. She negotiates the price [80F] in French, but you apparently don't need to speak the language to get by.

"Most people can speak English - or they write prices down if they can't converse with you," says Vicky Regan, a "collector of anything and everything" from Oxted in Surrey.

Further on, Christine Evans is looking for glassware and porcelain, but finds the prices a bit on the steep side. She has, however, managed to buy a pair of watercolours of cherubs and takes them proudly out of her bag. "They only cost pounds 22 each," she says. "The trip will have been worth it just for these."

Eileen Mahon, however, is having less luck finding textiles. "I've always loved fabrics," she explains. "But in the UK, it's so predictable and I love coming out here because you have no idea what you are going to find." all of a sudden, her eyes meet a couple of chests overflowing with clothes and fabrics. "It's a treasure trove!" she exclaims, as she untangles a piece of gold brocade. She selects a pink Christian Dior headrest and then picks out a piece of white cloth with a pinky-red flower motif. "You would never find the same colours in the UK," she says. Twenty minutes later, she is still there, holding a black beaded purse and a piece of blue Thirties material. In all, she picks up about 10 pieces for around 500F (pounds 55).

Back at the coach, Sali shows off a Fifties lime-green radio and James's son is admiring an old metallic advertising plaque he has picked up for just 50F (pounds 6). Another member of the group, Janice Hobson, has bought a framed collage of hair and a silver enamel case.

As the coach sets off back to England, Lisa the photographer and I have only one thing in mind - to rush back to the fair and pick up some bargains ourselves. Lisa quickly comes across two antique dining chairs, an old iron bed and perhaps the strangest purchase of the day - an old-fashioned wrought-iron bike with a huge front wheel and a tiny back wheel to decorate her sitting room. As for me, I come away with a beautiful large mirror with a carved frame covered in gold leaf for only 725F (pounds 80). Now, that's what I call a good day's work

James Edwards can be contacted on 01732 842207 (telephone & fax).