Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 15 February 2009

Cheap, but...

When the shopping bags toppled off the rear carrier for the third time (I blame the pineapple), it was beyond obvious that I had to find a permanent solution. A short-lived experiment with a plastic greengrocer's tray had been fine in itself, but it was too flimsy to last. The problem is that my rear carrier curves up at each end of a relatively short space, leaving little support for any container; but some googling turned up a rear basket (why hadn't I thought of that as a search term months ago?) that looked promising, with a stockist not too far away on Roman Road.

I haven't been there for a couple of years, the sun was out (for a few minutes suggesting I had one layer of clothes too many), so off I went.

Roman Road (it's straight enough to be on the line of a Roman military road, and it points straight towards Colchester, a military town from Roman times to the present day) has long been a centre for shopping, with the kind of street market that features in EastEnders, and what my parents would have called "proper shops" - independent specialist businesses that know their stock and their customers' needs. And sure enough, this particular shop had something that fitted, at much less than the silly prices in the better-known chain cycle shops: problem solved in minutes.

Exploring further along the road towards the market, you're never without reminders of the road you're on: Roman Properties, Roman Sports, Roman Nails, Roman Computers, Roman Furniture (some blinging mirrors and this shoe in the shape of a high-heeled shoe), Roman Tackle (for fishing), Roman Plumbing, and, yes, Roman Baths and the Roman Empire (that's a Chinese takeaway, by the way).

In amongst these are the Amazing Grace bridal boutique, Sew Amazing (no prizes for guessing their business), a shop with a signboard in Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Latvian as well as English, halal shops and Afro-Caribbean hairdressers as well as a pie and mash shop. Above it all, it has my favourite, the proper-est of proper shops, an old-fashioned family-run hardware shop that seems to sell almost anything you could want: paints, tools, tiles, plugs and sockets, nails, screws, hooks, every sort of household cleaning device and chemical - and if you want a packet of seeds, a double eggcup or a honey pig snout for the dog (yes, really), then look no further.

But oh dear, when I got to the market itself, the sun had gone in, the cold had returned. Here too many shops were shuttered for a normal Saturday afternoon; one flower stall knocking down its last bunches of Valentine's Day carnations, a couple of greengrocers, a sweet-stall and some housewares, but mostly unbelievably cheap clothing. Cheap, but not at all cheerful. Unusually, the central passageway wasn't impossibly crowded, and not many people seemed to be buying anything.

And then, at the end of the street, this sign of community jollity: two gigantic metal poppies in a little park.

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