Although shopping is now one of the chief leisure activities of the English, it can be a rather soulless experience. High streets up and down the country feature the same bland chain-stores selling similar ranges of mass-produced items. Nonetheless it is still possible to track down neighbourhoods, stores and the occasional oddity that make for a more enjoyable retail experience.
Most places, for example, have a market at least once a week, which may vary from the sprawling, commercialized affairs of Camden, Portobello and Spitalfields in London, to sedate, community-minded village jamborees. Street markets or covered markets are often the best places to pick up craft items, though you may have to wade through a proliferation of scented candles and twee bric-a-brac to find anything truly original. Markets are also the only places (apart from antique shops and some second-hand shops) where haggling is acceptable. Country Markets (wwww.country-markets .co.uk) has nationwide listings that make it easy to find when a market takes place close to you. Many towns also have a weekly or monthly farmers’ market (see wwww .farmersmarkets.net), selling local foods and artisan products. You’ll find similarly authentic local items in farm shops, usually signposted by the side of the road in rural areas.
Particular districts and towns specialize in certain items – Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter for silver and gold, for example, or Hay-on-Wye (see p.508) for books. Antiques feature strongly everywhere – and in Cotswold villages in particular.
Most goods, with the chief exceptions of books and food, are subject to 20 percent VAT (Value Added Tax, or sales tax). VAT is always included in the marked price of goods. Visitors from non-EU countries can benefit from the Tax-Free Shopping scheme. Participating stores allow you to fill out a form at the time of purchase, which you then show to customs officials when you leave the UK: as long as you are taking that item out of the country, they will refund the VAT you paid. See (among others) wwww.gbtaxfree.com or www.globalrefund .com. You cannot reclaim VAT charged on hotel bills or other services.