Every January, April and September, 120 or so antique dealers - the majority of them from Britain, but a growing number from France, Belgium and Holland - gather in a marquee in Battersea Park to exhibit an eclectic mix of antiques.
The event is at the opposite end of the scale to grand fairs, such as the Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, where dowager duchesses with lacquered- helmet hair muse over the purchase of a pair of rather charming chairs for the price of a flat in Chelsea, before repairing to Fortnum's for tea. At The Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair no one will bat an eyelid if you wander in, mud-spattered after a stomp around the park and draped with children and dogs (but check your insurance if Rover has a boisterous tail).
Inside you will find chairs, mirrors and clocks; chandeliers, tables and paintings; mirrors and porcelain; textiles, including American quilts and Aubussons; and unusual items such as a 1920s oak tennis press: in short, pieces to suit all tastes and pocket depths. "We're not just about brown furniture," says Patricia Harvey, co-founder of the fair. "People come here to look for something special to finish off a room."
Patricia and Ralph Harvey launched the fair in 1985 for interior decorators and the public. As antiques dealers themselves, they were aware of the many shortcomings of the fairs and exhibitions they traded at. The Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair has gone from strength to strength, outgrowing several venues before settling in Battersea Park. The Harveys' meticulous organisation ensures that exhibitors can concentrate on talking about and selling antiques. Good for business, but good for the customer too, as the atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming.
Anthony Graham, of Anthony Graham Antiques (01423 323952), has had a stand at the fair for five years, selling "a real mixture of usable decorative antique furniture". According to him, the fair is a good way of "finding out what's in and what's not in. Rustic furniture, especially mahogany hall benches [from pounds 600] are popular at the moment".
Soo San Antiques (0171 352 8980) sells fashionable antique Chinese pieces. With their very clean look, these would blend in well with modern furnishings. Clare Leather is returning to the fair for the second time, after being impressed by the quality and range of the other exhibits and the relaxed shopping atmosphere: "People shop slowly, carefully - it's not a mad rush." Prices start at pounds 27 for a pair of ebony and silver chopsticks, rising to pounds 1,000 or pounds 2,000 for cabinets and chests. Not everything on Soo San's stand is antique. They have also made up some silk bolsters specially for the fair, in black, red or mustard, for pounds 86.95.
The fair takes much of the hassle out of antiques shopping, providing you avoid the first two hours when the trade descends in a frenzy of buying. The benefits are: one ticket lets you in for the week; everything has been vetted by experts; stocks are constantly replenished, flagging energy levels can be boosted at the cafe and there's even a team of porters to fetch and carry for you. It sounds like dangerous territory for the transmission of the antiques-collecting bug to me.
The Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair is at the Marquee, Riverside Terraces, Battersea Park, London SW11 (0171-624 5173) from 19-24 January: Tuesday, noon-8pm; Wednesday-Friday, 11am-8pm; Saturday, 11am-7pm; Sunday, 10am-6pm. Admission pounds 6, including catalogueReuse content