Shopping: Going, going... but not quite gone

Tony Kelly visits the spirited world of the country auction
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Lot 17, weighs in at 3.8 kilos, nice bird for the weekend there, got to be worth about four. Three pounds I'll take then. All right, two I'm bid; thank you, Madam. Two twenty, 2.40, 2.60, eighty? Two eighty down in front, three pounds, sir? Three pounds, 3.20, 3.40 I'm bid. Three pounds forty, 3.40, quite sure? Sold on my left at three pounds 40."

If you think it's exhausting to read, you should try being there. This is the world of the country auction, where 15 seconds is all it takes for a turkey to come under the hammer. Cambridge-based auctioneers Cheffins, Grain and Comins have been running such auctions every Thursday for more than 100 years. Until 1988 they were held in Ely's cattle market; when that became a supermarket and a car park, they moved to a council depot in the Fens.

Tom Housden, 84, has worked as a porter for Cheffins for 60 years. "I've been with an auction since I was tall enough to go to market," he tells me as he unpacks a box of marrows, "old maids' comforts" as he calls them with a glint in his eye. "I started in Royston as a ten year old on my father's stall, earning half a crown for a 12-hour day. Nowadays I do it for love because it's my life.

"In another year or two there'll be nothing like this left," he adds sadly. "You young people aren't interested - you have it too easy with supermarkets."

But looking around, although the average age is probably 50, I see that at 35 I am by no means the youngest person here.

Lisa Cox has brought her daughter Fiona, 4, in search of second-hand toys and Fiona has spotted a Sindy doll's-house that she wants. But as it is lot number 208, they have a long wait ahead. When you have set your heart on something, there is only one thing to do - decide your price and wait patiently in the right place so that you don't get a rush of blood when the bidding starts.

Anyone can bring anything to be sold here, at commission rates of 15- 20%, although most of the household goods come from house clearances. Looking round the depot, I can't help wondering about the stories, of death and divorce and bankruptcy, that these boxes of junk represent. Who would want to sell their collection of Post Office darts trophies? And, more to the point, who would want to buy them? Butchers' scales, a guitar with three strings, an old wooden highchair with a teddy strapped in; things that once meant so much are dispensed within seconds, without emotion.

Unlikely combinations appear. How about two ironing boards and a satellite dish (they went for pounds 2)? A paddling pool, a child's trolley and a Remington typewriter (pounds l the lot)? Or a brand new barbecue, together with a riding saddle, for pounds 8?

But the real action takes place at the food auction, where a crowd of housewives and ruddy Penland farmers jostles around the trestle tables in search of a bargain. "I just come for the turkeys," says a woman of about 30 beside me. "My mum wants one, my sister wants one, I want one. They're cheap and they're always fresh."

Moments later she is forking out pounds 2 for a 10lb bird (a poultry amount, I am tempted to suggest) and by the time all 60 turkeys have been sold, she has five of them.

Tom Housden has another dozen, which he will sell on to his local old people's home at cost price. "Most of the people in there are younger than me," he says.

Next comes the produce, boxes of strawberries and beetroot, cauliflower and cabbage, grown on local allotments by men in their seventies and eighties. This is where the bidding gets serious - no dealers or car-boot traders here, just housewives haggling over a few pence. Strawberries go for 60p a punnet, spring onions 10p a bunch, lettuces 50p for 12, eggs pounds 1.40 for two dozen. Some people leave with no more than a handful of cabbages, but at those prices and with the fun of a morning out, they still feel the trip has been worthwhile.

And what about Fiona and her Sindy house? It is almost the last thing to be sold and I find myself hoping desperately that she gets it. It's a doddle - the car-boot people are reluctant to deny a little girl her treat and Lisa gets her prize for just pounds 12.50. It's taken all morning but it's probably the only way she'd ever have got it.

Next year the auction will move to a new site at Sutton, and auctioneer Philip Ambrose fears that European hygiene laws might mean the end of the produce sale. The household auction will continue, but without the turkeys and the tomatoes it will lose a lot of its character. So is Tom Housden right when he says that country auctions are an endangered species? "I hope not, but I fear he is," says Ambrose. "We only make a modest profit but I want to go on doing it. After all, we've been doing it for a hundred years. It's tradition."

Auction every Thursday morning at Portley Hill depot, Ely Road, Littleport, Cambs. Viewing from around 9am, produce sale from 10.30am, household sale from 11.00am. Details from Cheffins, Grain and Comins (01353 662266).