Browsing in a glass antique and collectables shop in Rye recently I was somewhat surprised to hear the staff member yell: “Look the lady’s dancing, turn the music up”. A moment later and the shop was reverberating to the sound of Fleetwood Mac. The shopkeeper sang along as my wife boogied.
It was then I realised this was no ordinary shopkeeper. It was Andy McConnell, glass expert and familiar to Sunday evening viewers of Antiques Roadshow where, since 2005, he has been providing antique advice and valuations in his own unconventional way.
Discovery Centre project
It turns out that when he’s not entertaining TV viewers with his unique inimitable style, Andy lives and works in East Sussex – well, to be more precise, in Winchelsea and Rye respectively – and he is throwing his celebrity weight behind the fund-raising appeal for the exciting new Discovery Centre project at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.
Earlier this month he took a break from his joking and playful banter with customers to have a chat with Emma Chaplin from the Sussex Wildlife Trust about why he loves the county, and his passion for environmental causes – especially the Discovery Centre project.
He said: “I love living here (Winchelsea Beach) it’s a mini-paradise, five minutes from Rye and just over an hour from London. It’s real, not plastic, grungy or urban. It’s beautiful, with nice weather. The Gulf Stream blows into my life through the front door and the air is fabulous.
“I lived in Rye Harbour for years and could literally see it out the window. What Sussex Wildlife Trust has created over the years to support rare species’ habitats, is magnificent. I’ve always loved wildlife and the countryside. I was brought up yards from Epping Forest, and spent a childhood charging around the woodland getting covered in mud.”
As part of the fund-raising campaign to support the development of the new Discovery Centre, Andy gave a talk recently about his life.
And he explained why he feels so passionately about giving something back. “I set myself an annual target as a charity fundraiser in appreciation of how spoiled I’ve been in my life. I generally support humanitarian and environmental causes, the latter because we’re making such a mess of our precious world. We are losing species and it’s unforgivable that we’ve not done more. We’ve seen an escalation in accumulation, without governments caring about the impact of it.”
A passion that started young
Andy started buying and selling antiques when he was 14 and he is now a specialist glass dealer, running Britain’s largest antique and vintage glass shops in Rye. He has written several books about glass including The Decanter: An Illustrated History of Glass from 1650and 20th Century Glass, which covers the more recent past. He lectures widely and writes for journals as diverse as The Times, Country Life, and Glass Circle News.
“Mum and dad were part-time dealers.” He said. “I found that I enjoyed visiting antique shops with them and was buying in Portobello Market from the age of 14. Any decent dealer loves an enthusiastic kid. I believe that glass is the most important substance created by mankind. Where would we be without lenses? Glass represents vanity, sophistication and civilisation. To decant wine is both urbane and civilised and it improves the taste, transforming a £5 bottle into an £8 one.”
Andy’s journey into the professional world of antiques and TV celebrity has been a somewhat unusual one, though. He explained: “I moved to Rye in 1976 after working as a rock journalist in Hollywood, California, and was phoned out of the blue by the manager of Jefferson Starship. He invited me on tour. When we were in Hamburg, I met an antique-shop owner, who asked me to source glassware for him. We worked together for 25 years until 2000. It was brilliant. After he retired, I started writing articles and books about glass.”
“I don’t dress like an Edwardian undertaker”
In 2005 he joined the Antiques Roadshow team and is the first to admit he brings a slightly different dimension to the show. “My style is looser than the other specialists. I don’t dress like an Edwardian undertaker, for instance, and don’t claim to know everything. I run a junk shop, not Sotheby’s.
“My TV persona is weird, it beams out and people connect. It’s flattering. Antiques Roadshow has the largest viewing figures of any BBC programme except Attenborough. Loads more than Poldark and it costs a lot less to make. It’s really democratic, with rich folk queuing alongside everyone else, and everyone gets seen. We’re a team, led from the top by Fiona Bruce, who is a great presenter.”
Andy admits that having a private life has become more difficult as his celebrity has grown. “I’m a private/public person and don’t always take it well when people point and stare, or poke. Airport queues can be awful. When I first joined Antiques Roadshow I knew it would herald the end of my boot-fair buying. And, sure enough, by the third season you could hear ‘Antiques Roadshow’ drop like a lead weight when people recognised me. But you can’t have everything in life, can you?”
But if, like me, you visit his impressive shop and he happens to be there, you’ll get a friendly welcome and almost certainly be offered a cup of tea. I can’t guarantee he’ll turn up the music so you can dance to it, however.
If you want to know more Rye Harbour project that Andy is supporting visit the Discovery Centre Project website.
Main pic by Nazarin Montag.