The Trip: The Fens
Mark Elliott relocates from London to the Fenlands of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire and takes a rural record-shopping trip…
There’s a lot of water. Whether we’re talking the waterlogged fields, the rain (it’s proving to be a very drizzly winter) or the wide-as-a-canyon rivers and creeks, it’s everywhere and I’m not used to it… yet. I’m going to be, though, because this is now home. After close to 30 years in London, my partner and I decided to try something completely different, and East Anglia’s drenched rural flatlands are proving a fascinating new landscape to explore. We’ve found the local GP and train station, of course, but those plans for mind-restoring day-long treks across fields with Winston the pug have so far failed to materialise.
Yet there have been expeditions of a different (and arguably more significant) sort. A colleague once said the definition of urban orientation is how long it takes you, from your front door, to buy a fresh lime. I beg to differ: how long does it take me to source a second-hand Blondie LP? That’s the real measure. Well, you can take the boy out of London…
So the answer to that key collector’s question is, actually, not long at all. In the few weeks we’ve been here, I’ve been struck by three things: the abundance of places to buy records, the range of stock (and the friendliness of everyone who sells it to you) and one thing certain to pique your interest: the prices. Everyone I speak to is acutely aware that, for things to shift, they have to be marked to reflect prices that people living here will pay. Certainly, the summer sees an influx of holidaymakers who top up the takings, but it’s the locals that keep these stores going. There’s no question that the cost of living in this part of the world is significantly cheaper than the wider South East and the bigger metropolitan areas up north I’ve visited. Now, if we were talking about the antiques trade, I’m reliably informed that the rule of thumb is to buy in Norfolk, but sell elsewhere. This appears true of vinyl, too, with a number of retailers reporting that they often get dealers coming up to source stock to flog elsewhere.
Among the places I visited, I came across one of the best crate-digging venues I’ve ever been to (with super-reasonable prices) and there, as elsewhere, I’ve picked up items I’ve never stumbled upon in years of collecting.
So this is a trip with a difference: a tour of my new hunting ground (with plenty of places slightly further a field left for another time, such as Norwich and Cambridge). You’ll need a car, of course, as even the three shops in Peterborough, for example, would be hard to visit quickly without your own transport. It’s possibly a bit of a stretch to describe this area as a hidden gem, but I’d say it’s well worth a special visit if you want to sift through a decent amount of stuff at very decent prices. Just leave those 80s pop prizes alone; they’re mine…
1. CLOISTER ANTIQUES
1 Lynn Road, Ely, Cambs CB7 4EG
Opening Hours: 10am to 3pm Monday, Wednesday to Saturday; 11am to 3pm Sunday (closed second Sunday of the month)
Ely’s one of those grand market towns dominated by a huge cathedral (built in 1083). Cloisters Antiques (near the cathedral’s front entrance) is slightly younger, but still started its life in the last century. Across three floors, there’s a fascinating collection of books, furniture and the typical curiosities that you’ll find all across the area. The vinyl is now all down in the cellar and, although there aren’t many 7″s, there’s a very decent range of pop, rock and MOR in LP and 12″ formats. Prices are fair and some of the stock gets an airing at the antique and collectors’ fairs that are held every so often (email Nick at email@example.com for details). I find a Petula Clark boxed collection called Devotion (on Pye) that parcels together some of her greatest-hits collections for less than a tenner, a very nice copy of the Follies London stage recording from 1987 and a near-mint West German 1964 issue of The Seekers. The soundtracks yield a copy of Bright Lights, Big City (with Prince’s great Good Love) and The Associates’ 12″ Message Oblique Speech, so I’d say there’s more than just pop to be found here.
Market Place, Ely, Cambs CB7 4NT
Opening Hours: 8:30am to 3pm Saturday
Dean Tyrrell braves the elements every Saturday to man his market stall, with its really surprising turnover of decent stock across the genres. In Ely, this is where you’ll secure more collectable fare from The Stones, Marley, McCartney et al. Dean’s location in the historic market square, surrounded by a mix of stalls selling food and all manner of antiques and collectables, is likely why so many people think of him first when looking for a fair price for their vinyl. I pick up some decent soul (some really nice Motown LPs in great condition and, in my opinion, the best Gladys Knight compilation – 1983’s set on Star Blend) plus lots of 80s stuff. Not having bricks-and-mortar overheads keeps prices very low and, for Dean alone, I’d suggest Saturday is the only day to visit this charming, ancient city.
3 Wales Court, Downham Market, Norfolk PE38 9JZ
Opening Hours: 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday
Celebrating its 45th birthday this year is, perhaps, the granddaddy of East Anglia’s independent music retailers. Lewks is a Downham Market institution and has championed Record Store Day from the very start, making it one of the very few retailers in the region to participate, with queues here, as elsewhere, usually starting the night before. The celebrated – and absolutely authentic – friendliness the area is famous for is evident in the detail with which Lewks staff explain how they try to make sure everyone gets a look-in. They have a strict ban on people buying more than one copy of each product (a few retailers elsewhere still need to take note of this); there’s no second-hand stock for sale here, but the new vinyl racks are up-to-date and prices are better than you’ll find in the chains. I pick up the new Toto compilation and order the new Justin Timberlake LP, which I’m told will be with me within the week (and it is). This place is so loved locally that an interesting brand extension for the shop is its 60s, 70s and 80s disco, held in the town hall, which is rapidly becoming a Downham Market institution. This is a masterclass in how retailers are adapting to survive. Check out the vintage carrier bags on the wall to see evidence of Lewks’ success! When Lawrence Welham opened the store after moving here from London, it was during the glory years of the 45 and the 8-track. He surfed the video and wider consumer boom of the 80s, celebrated the CD and DVD revolution of the following decades, and now his daughter Danielle maintains elements of all these lines. They do stock some T-shirts, but I’m already thinking about significantly more ambitious fancy dress options for the disco. This is how to make a big impression with your new neighbours, after all. EDIT: Lewks sadly closed its doors on June 2 2018.
4. THE MUSIC BOX
94 Norfolk Street, Wisbech, Cambs PE13 2LW
Opening Hours: 9am to 4:30pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday to Saturday
Before Christmas, I popped into David Allen’s Wisbech shop and spotted a very decent copy of The Beatles’ 1976 Singles boxset in the window. Regularly going for three figures online or at fairs, this one cost me much less than that. The 24 discs were near-unplayed and, alongside the vinyl reissue of their festive flexis that Apple put out in December, soundtracked the stressful induction into Aga cooking that was our Christmas lunch. David has 6,000-odd LPs and almost as many 45s. “I sell a lot of rock and blues,” David tells me, “and there’s a big Northern Soul scene in this area, but that can be a bit hit-or-miss, with the best stuff tending to circulate direct among the hardcore fans.” David says that vinyl has been selling ever-more healthily and now makes up almost half of his turnover. The area’s large Eastern European community creates some steady sellers that struggle to shift elsewhere. Rather less common are copies of Mellow Candles’ Swaddling Songs. David came across a press copy – complete with release and photograph – in a box of various albums that had been left unsorted after he’d agreed to take the pile off the chap who had brought it in. “He came in with this box and said he wanted £150 for the whole lot,” David recalls. “That doesn’t happen often,” he smiles, with graceful understatement. With much of his stock stored offsite, David maintains a strong, local reputation for helping you sift through a wants list (as long as you pay cash – no cards are accepted here).
5. THE RECORD SHOP
10 St James Street, King’s Lynn, Norfolk PE30 5DA
Opening Hours: 10am to 3:30pm Monday t0 Friday (closed Mondays in winter); 8:30am to 3:3pm Saturday
Tony Winfield opened up shop here in 1996 and this well-ordered store is a testament to range and proper filing. “This place saves me getting a proper job,” admits Tony, but he’s clearly made a success of this career, with an adjacent space being absorbed into his shop a few years back. “When I first started, it was The Beatles that were the strongest sellers, and that’s still true now, I think,” he says. But he reports – not uncommonly in this area, it seems – a big upsurge in sales from 1980s acts and the 90s indie everyone is keen to uncover, but remain very hard to find. He estimates that 10 people a day will come in to try to sell him stuff, but the majority is worthless to him. “I’ll take the 1960s records and things like punk and new wave, which sell steadily, but not much of the rest.” I pick up clean copies of Howard Jones’ first three albums, as well as the ninth edition of The Hits Album (released in late 1988, the first without a volume number and the penultimate in the Now! rival’s initial run). There’s a lot more to go through here – including some super-rare stuff and many picture discs – but to do The Record Shop justice, you’d need a good few hours. Plus, this is another cash-only establishment and I need an ATM…
6. RETRO! RECORDS & TOYS
8 St James Street, King’s Lynn, Norfolk PE30 5RB
Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Monday, Wednesday to Saturday
Friends since primary school, Liam Baker and Karl Storf have brought to life a concept that has often intrigued me while travelling round the UK. Town-centre regeneration requires a bit of lateral thinking, and their idea of setting up a record and nostalgia shop right next door to Tony’s established business is, I think, inspired. Any suggestion of rivalry between the two businesses is swiftly dismissed. “We started out in July last year,” Karl tells me. “Tony, who we’ve known for ages, was really supportive and actually helped us with introductions to the landlord.” Liam admits the first year has been tough. “I’ve never had so much stress from something, but I wouldn’t swap it for the world,” he says. “Trade is good, but neither of us are business people and we’re really looking forward to getting through the first year.” They say metal, soul, rock and reggae are steady sellers, while country is proving hard to move. “You really can’t tell, though,” says Liam. “One guy came in to buy a picture disc by The Beloved. He just liked the design and wanted it for decoration. He doesn’t even own a record deck.” Thoughts of a picture disc from The Beloved steadily yellowing in the unforgiving glare of sunlight are the stuff of nightmares for me, so I soothe my tormented soul with the 1982 Brimstone & Treacle soundtrack and a fantastic boxed edition of Elton John’s Live In Australia With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (again, far cheaper than its current online average price). Previous trips have yielded a good number of 12″ singles and some choice soundtrack discs, including a pristine picture-sleeve 7″ of Star Wars (Main Title). Retro! carries a bit of new vinyl stock, but the majority is used – and this retailer is a welcome addition to an historic port town.
7. BOB’S RECORDS
2B Broad Street, Whittlesey, Cambs PE7 1HA
Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday; 10am to 4pm Sunday
Fairs veteran Bob Athow decided to move his hobby up a gear and set up a shop just under two years ago. “It all started with collecting records myself,” he tells us. “I don’t do the internet and I was finding the fairs just weren’t cost-effective, so this seemed the obvious thing to do.” He says wrapping his van in the standout orange livery of his store’s branding has proved a highly effective way of spreading word of mouth about his Whittlesey store on the outskirts of Peterborough. “I try to price stuff on what I paid for it,” he admits, but says this keeps his margins tight. “I’m not making a lot of money out of this, but I love doing it and as long as I can keep my shop going, I’ll be very happy with that.” Bob also trades in record players and gramophones, while selling tickets for some local gigs. He says the 80s revival has seen a big upsurge in sales from the classic decade of pop, but he is steering clear of Northern Soul – despite its popularity in these parts – because there are just too many bootlegs in circulation. Bob sells some new vinyl and tells us he shifted 15 Amy Winehouse albums in the run-up to Christmas, but isn’t sure whether to get involved in Record Store Day, with his hesitancy in part due to the high level of admin. He doesn’t take cards, either, but that doesn’t stop me taking advantage of some sale items – including the Status Quo 12 Gold Bars Volumes I + II special set, the third LP from The Pretenders, some random singles and a George Harrison picture-disc 12″ for Got My Mind Set On You. You get to keep the protective sleeves and the prices are very reasonable. There’s a lot of stock across all genres to go through and there’s a steady stream of locals popping in while I’m here, too.
8. MARRS PLECTRUM RECORDS
387 Fullbridge Road, Peterborough PE4 6SF
Opening Hours: 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday; 11am to 2pm Saturday
This famous business once claimed to be the UK’s smallest record shop. Once I’ve concluded my trek around the country, I’ll get back to you on that; but I can concur that its owner, Matt Hawton, surely enjoys the shortest commutes – it’s essentially a shed in his suburban garden. Now something of a local landmark, Matt’s years drawing Ordnance Survey maps gave him an encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s charity shops, allowing him to spend his lunch hours cratedigging, but the 2014 decision to set up a shop in his back garden has proved to be a huge hit. “When I first opened, I was sure I had jumped through every hoop, but I must admit that, when the local councillor came round, I was a bit nervous I’d missed something. Luckily, the neighbours have been very supportive and I’m careful to make sure they know when things like Record Store Day are coming up.” That annual event is a huge deal for Matt, with the whole family getting involved. “My wife does some food and drink for people queueing up, and the kids are fascinated by all the fuss. I’m afraid it’s only the dog that doesn’t like it at all!” The seasonal peaks of Record Store Day and Christmas make trading highs uneven, but Matt’s surprising range of stock guarantees a good reason to visit across the year. “I try to carry a bit of everything, and there’s certainly a big Northern Soul scene here in the city, but I think people are looking for a decent browse as much as anything.” Doctor Who fans must love this place. It’s a bit like the TARDIS…
9. WEST TOWN RECORDS
81 Mayor’s Walk, Peterborough PE3 6EX
Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Thursday to Sunday
This two-year-old Peterborough stalwart takes a defiantly maverick approach to stock management, but the 30,000-odd items guarantee there’s something of interest every visit. Eli Lawson has been working at the small shop for a few months and says he has swiftly caught the vinyl bug, with a growing collection of reggae already to his name. Like many younger collectors, he delights in eclecticism and admits Tango In The Night has become a recent favourite. There are a lot of Northern Soul 7″s in this shop and it shifts steadily, but Eli says Madonna has proved to be particularly popular of late. I’ve brought Winston the pug on this trip and, as ever, he proves an inconsistent collecting companion far more interested in barking at anyone nearing the shop door than in the boxes rammed with vinyl inside. I extract a couple of Grace Jones albums, the ABBA protégés Gemini (a very reasonable £4 for a mint copy of their debut album), Numan’s I Can’t Stop with its flexi intact and some synth-pop. Once we get outside, I realise that Winston’s barking is actually more about the call of nature.
10. MARKET DEEPING RECORDS
Market Deeping Antiques & Craft Centre, 50-56 High Street, Market Deeping, Cambs PE6 8EB
Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday; 11am to 4pm Sunday
Checking out this store’s lively social-media feeds (facebook.com/marketdeepingrecords in particular) gives you a strong sense of how much interesting stock is constantly coming through this large stall within the town’s sizeable antiques centre. The area is peppered with collectors’ places such as this, but none I’ve come across carries a stall of vinyl this big. Every genre is covered, but there’s a decent amount of 60s in particular. It’s certainly the busiest stall here on the day I visit (a rather bleak midweek) and I spend way more than I’d expected, picking up a lot of very reasonably priced singles and some choice albums. These include a 12″ from 70s heart-throbs Flintlock, Carole Bayer Sager’s set with then-partner Burt Bacharach (check out her very frank 2017 autobiography for a fascinating behind-the-scenes perspective – you’ll never think of him in the same way again) and my favourite find from the place: the follow-up to Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle’s only hit, Diamond Lights: It’s Goodbye on 12″, with its cheap-as-chips ‘autographed’ photo! Grading of the records is excellent and this is top-notch stock well worth exploring. I know I have odd tastes, but try to see beyond The Kinks and Cream – you might even find another Glenn and Chris record…
11. UPTOWN VINYL RECORDS
Spalding Lifestyle Centre, 210 Spalding Road, Lincs PE11 3PB
Opening Hours: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Saturday; 10am to 4pm Sunday
Perhaps saving the best till last, this cavernous vinyl depository is certainly a day trip in itself. Alan Barnsdale has run the shop since turning his back on a more traditional corporate career. “What started out as a bit of fun has turned into a major business,” he tells me. “I’ve created a bit of an animal, but I really want people to dig deep here – I need to keep things moving, so it’s priced to reflect that. We’re just over the border in Lincolnshire, so I need to maintain Lincolnshire prices. I still have thousands of items to sort and put out, and I’d estimate we easily have 100,000 records already here in the shop.” Uptown began as a small corner of a mixed retail space, but has slowly expanded to dominate the warehouse and now even hosts the odd gig. A decent café and even some public toilets make this a perfect place to while away a few hours, but you’d need to be here for longer than a day to do it all properly. Among the crates of singles – ordered by label, genre and artist – I find the most impressive collection of 80s picture discs I’ve ever come across – rare items such as Bros’s Drop The Boy, Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time 12″ and Shakin’ Stevens’ shaped Pink Champagne are mine for just a few pounds apiece. I don’t have nearly long enough here but, even so, my huge haul blows my budget and I’m soon struggling to get it all back in the car. Yes, the drizzle has returned, but nothing can dampen my spirits. This place really is beginning to feel like home.
1 ANTIQUES ROADSHOW
Norfolk and Cambridge are packed with antiques and second-hand centres. You’ll wade through a lot of damp James Last records, but persevere and there are bargains to be found. I came across a mint copy of the Herman’s Hermits Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter EP for £2 and a lot of mainstream 60s singles in equally good condition for £1 each. Ely has a good antiques centre, but keep your eyes open – every town (and many a village) has at least one worth checking out.
2 THEY’RE ALL GOING ON A SUMMER HOLIDAY
Tourism is big business for this part of the world and, while getting around is easy enough in the winter, Norfolk’s summer traffic is legendary. Plan your trip carefully and avoid peak times, particularly on the busy A-roads snaking up towards the coast.
3 ALL TOGETHER NOW
Norfolkgigguide.com gives a great overview of gigs in the area, even if many of the listings are centred further east in the county’s principal town, Norwich, which is a good 90 minutes from the western perimeter of The Fens, which spills into the neighbouring counties. Across the summer, there are a number of open-air concerts and festivals locally. Trunchonbury, held in August, is particularly fabulous (see trunchonburyfestival.com for details).
4 THE FUN OF THE FAIR
There are a decent number of fairs in the region – including one in Peterborough every now and then that’s well worth a visit. Many of the local shops make sure they take a stall at it. Again, prices are better than you would pay elsewhere.
5 WHERE NEXT?
I chose the stores nearest to me as the crow flies, but Cambridge isn’t far away, and that has the highly respected Lost In Vinyl. Lincoln, a little further to the north, is home to the excellent Back To Mono, so there’s really no reason not to make a decent round-trip of it. But carry cash – many shops don’t take cards and ATM coverage is patchy outside the big towns.
There area is poorly served by public transport, and Wisbech is without even a train station. Rail services to Peterborough are fast and frequent, but only West Town is easily walkable from that station. The shops in King’s Lynn are easy to get to once you’re in the town, but you’ll obviously need a car to follow this Trip. The good news is that you rarely pay for parking in this part of the world – even the council car parks in Norfolk are largely free. Watch out for the tractors and lorries, though – you’ll likely get stuck behind a few travelling around, and there’s a saying that’s common up here: “Normal for Norfolk”. This is sadly applicable to some of the driving, too!