Brolly hunting in London:  Tourists seek shelter

Brolly hunting in London: Tourists seek shelter

Published Jul. 18, 2012 9:01 a.m. ET

Gold, silver, bronze: No matter who wins what at the London Olympics, a million or more visitors will need to get themselves an umbrella.

I live in London and even I need a new brolly, as they are called here. My old one has been reduced to deadly spikes between tattered remnants of cloth. The husband blames me, says I'm hard on things. I blame the British weather - it was the wettest June on record and July is trying hard to beat that.

Clearly it's time to go shopping.



It rains so much in Britain that a store devoted to umbrellas has thrived since 1830. I went to James Smith & Sons, Umbrellas Ltd. to interview the experts.

Umm, no dice. Too busy to speak to the media, today, tomorrow, ever. Do I understand? Ever.

Did they flunk marketing 101? Who doesn't want to talk to the press about their product?

I can still walk around, eye the goods. One section has a dozen tartans, another brollys with big thick stripes possibly related to obscure sporting clubs of which I am not a member. They are sturdy and good-looking though. You could whack a London rioter with one of these if need be, use them as ladies' hand weights.

For 75 to 80 pounds ($116 to $132), you can walk away with a wooden duck handle on your brolly. Ditto ones with parrots, foxes, cats, dogs, even a dinosaur. On the other hand, what are you doing, trying to pretend you have a moat?

Still, the folding umbrella section inspires definite brolly envy, with some so compact they could fit into clutch. This is where girlie-girl options run riot. Ruffles and Degas ballet dancers, mock-Burberry plaids and polka dots, brollys in hot pink, teal blue, blinding chartreuse. Those craving attention in an Olympic crowd should look no further.

''My sister will be crazy about a clear umbrella like this, it's a gift for her,'' said Mario Marcari, a tourist from Brazil.

Others sought quality and tradition.

''Black is the new black,'' explained Doug Knowles of San Francisco, who travels often to London on business. ''In the business world I would look odd carrying around polka dots.''

The quietly professional staff who won't talk to me demonstrate to others the sturdiness of umbrellas with steel shafts, teach them how to press spring-loaded buttons so brollys pop into action without blinding family members.


Am I joking? No. James Smith & Sons still sells what used to called parasols for 155 to 145 pounds ($225 to $240) for both men and women but only in cream and white. The chances are nil, however, that Britain will see enough sun to drag these babies out. And after a few days on the island, you will start craving vitamin D like the rest of us.


Those with a thinner wallet can go to Camden and other outdoor markets where the ubiquitous ''I love London'' and Union Jack brollys cost 3 to 5 pounds each ( $4.70 to $7.80). Still, don't they just announce your lack of imagination to the rooftops? If one must go the cheapie tourist route, a London Underground brolly for 10 pounds ($15.50) has a classic, recognizable design.

For a unique look, artists at the markets also use umbrellas as canvases, painting them like others do sneakers.


As the New York Yankees have shown, team logos can travel worldwide. Top English Premier League teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea all sell brollys with logos, starting at 24.99 pounds ($38.60) on up for those they call `Gustbusters.'

Truth is, they're mostly for wives, girlfriends and tourists. At a game, it's impossible to chant obscenities at opposing teams while carrying a brolly and still keep your manhood intact. Plus blocking another fan's view of the pitch could start a mini-riot. Not to mention that carrying the wrong logo is a good recipe for a bar fight in some parts of town.

''They're drunk, they stand in the rain,'' a London-based sportswriter said, explaining British fans to me. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he stands in the rain every week too.

The sports umbrella debate even has its own class divide. The posh crowds watching tennis at Wimbledon ALWAYS have brollys and have been taught from a young age how to scrunch down low so people behind them can still see.


For those wanting a more sophisticated look, it's time to hit the museum gift shops. The British Museum alone has about a dozen brollys, ranging from 16.99 pounds ($26) for a Shakespeare Floral design to 26.99 pounds ($41.60) for one that reveals London landmarks when it gets wet. Trendy types seek brollys that prove they have been to the latest art exhibition, but old standbys like a Rosetta Stone umbrella (16.99 pounds, $26) could flash your archaeology IQ.


In Mayfair, London's wealthy hedge fund neighborhood, the enormous golf umbrella with a fund logo is de rigueur. But you can't buy them - adding to their allure - and you must be part of the tribe to know which fund is hot this month, which is not and which is the next Ponzi scheme. Plus you will get in trouble with Olympic security (see below).


As I passed through Olympic Park security this week, a jovial debate ensued among the guards. Were the uncovered spikes on my tattered umbrella a weapon?

Apparently not. But the staff did have one big plea for visitors - NO GOLF UMBRELLAS. They will be confiscated. You will be angry. You could get wet. This was allegedly written in extremely fine print somewhere in the instructions about Olympic tickets, but the guards know thousands will be upset when their brollys are permanently detained.

They say they hate being the bad guys.

And no walking-length umbrellas with steel tips either. Stick to the folding ones.


I admit defeat, go back to James Smith & Sons, buy a lovely brown-and-silver plaid folding brolly for 34.99 pounds ($54.70). It's so pretty it banishes my bag-lady look. Will they talk to the press now?

Of course not.