Producing the Goods 2

St Nicholas Markets, Bristol


Mike Cardwell works as the temporary Markets Development and Marketing Officer at Bristol City Council having previously worked as, (among other things) a market trader. He now runs training courses for traders on, for example, promotion, budgeting, business planning and health and hygiene issues linked to market retailing.

There are three covered areas which make up St Nicholas Markets, named after the adjacent church and street, and which rise from St Nicholas Street to Corn Street: the Covered Market which itself is a small warren of alleys between small shop fronts featuring an eclectic mix including a book-seller, pet foods, a tattoo-ist, a 'head' shop and cafes. This opens out into the airy and bright Glass Arcade, which contains mostly places to eat, also a florist and fabric seller; and the Exchange Market with its ceiling decorations and skylights, under which (to generalise) crafts, clothes and curios are sold from traditional stalls.

There has been a definite shift at St Nicholas Markets over the last decade. During the 1980s the Glass Arcade had been in decline, says Mike, with space hard to let and a consequent lack of investment. Now more food is sold, especially 'world food' reflecting Bristol's mixed ethnic population - Portuguese, Caribbean, Italian, Indian and a specialist cheese stall - the Gurt Cheese stall (which which out-of-town visitors can patronise via the Gurt Western Railway). Opposite a familiar type of chilled display selling Cornish pasties, Somerset cheddar, milk, eggs, teabags, Wiltshire ham sandwiches, and those adopted west country delicacies, vegetable samosas, is small Berber tent. Formerly a struggling fruit and veg stall, the Moroccan owner cottoned on to the market for cooked and specialist foods from the main lunch-time trade passing through the Glass Arcade, named from its glazed pitched roof, held up by ornate wrought-iron supports. Back in the tent, diners (including office workers, families and students - the latter of which, in Bristol, are affluent compared to their peers in other cities and are living in the city centre) may occasionally shiver in the December temperatures. Yet the cous-cous with cinnamon-stewed lamb, mint tea in decorated glasses and sweetmeats, all served at low tables decorated with Arabic script, and eaten from sofas and in the company of hooker pipes, may seem like a temporary contrast to the immanence of Christmas, or a release from the associated shopping. The Council has recently spent over £300,000 on making up for past neglect and have re-roofed the Glass Arcade.

Bristol Council want to develop the reputation of the area around St Nicholas Church and Corn Street as the 'market quarter.' It is well-placed among narrow alleys whose swinging signs for barbers, fabric, flower, books (even pet food) lure in both routine and what Mike calls 'destination' shoppers. To the markets' east is the 1950s / 60s Broadmead shopping centre, some of which is to be demolished and rebuilt into what is billed as a new 'upmarket shopping destination' known as Merchants Quarter. Immediately west and south is the waterfront of boats, cafes, fountains, arts centres, urban glamour. What may have started in the 1970s as a Bristolian counter-culture of home-grown veg, the first city farms and wholefood bakeries, has now become inside-track. While still peppered with allotments and the latest in sustainable house-building, Bristol is the home of the (now enormous and influential) Soil Association, and is the new HQ for US-owned Whole Foods market (formerly Fresh and Wild), having forsaken its trendy base in Notting Hill. The city is surrounded by productive countryside and populated by motivated, young and diverse people - a perfect food city.

This is reflected in Bristol Council's latest collaboration with the Slow Food movement (whose Italian-based Board of Slow Food International is considering housing Slow Food UK in the city) the monthly Slow Food market. Run by local volunteers, the markets are held on the first Sunday of each month, complementing rather than competing with the weekly Wednesday farmers' market. Slow Food trading criteria are evolving as experience of trading progresses but, in general, traders have to demonstrate commitment to high quality of their products and to minimising the environmental effects of their production, offer local and seasonal food (where appropriate - there is a dried fruit trader) and use traditional processing methods which, in the case of meat and dairy products, respect the animals' welfare.

Sight lines are an important feature of the markets at St Nicholas. A look through the grand, iron-studded and lion-knockered double doors of the Exchange Market gives a narrow prospect of cornucopia. More modest doors on each of the three other sides afford similar views. The Glass Arcade is entirely laid bare from its end entrances. The Covered Market, though no less inviting, will show only the shop front immediately obvious, or a flat row of them seem side on. In 2006 the configuration of the Exchange Hall will be reorganised so that sight lines will run its entire length. A new food hall will also emerge and there are hopes for street-based local produce markets (distinct from and additional to the weekly Corn Street farmers' market, which as Britain's second ever farmers' market after Bath, remains vibrant) in order that, eventually, there will be a market on every day. Much energy and some of the £24,000 the Council has annually to promote and develop city markets is going into promoting the Covered Market, not least as a place where services as well as goods can be bought. Although there are overlaps between the market spaces, some segregation is envisaged, for example the new Food Hall, which will occupy currently closed units in Exchange Avenue would sell UK food, the Covered Market would have imported and exotic foods.

The City Council holds the charter rights for all markets in Bristol. But building on the success of St Nicholas plainly captures the lion's share of investment. Mike certainly feels that a compact city like Bristol should offer a thriving centre as a place to shop not least for good quality and speciality foods, as well as regional or traditional favourites. The interaction with producers or traders is something that customers, traders and the Council value and want to support as a routine in food shopping in central Bristol.

St Nicholas is the Wunderkind of the Bristol markets scene, but outlying markets are seeing trading start to peter out, for example at Eastville, which is subject to partial development for a Chinese supermarket, and where now a only handful of fresh food traders continue. However, other initiatives are adding to the profile of food marketing in the city, including Hartcliffe's food for all scheme, a community led co-op growing and selling organic produce in this area of south Bristol. At Southmead the 70 stall market includes about a dozen food stalls within the grounds of the hospital and Tollgate is a 5-story car-boot market which may be relocated to a smaller space nearer shi-shi Clifton. Both fresh and cooked food stalls are planned but the customer profile will change.

Mike is also aware that the kind of market quarter he and the Council invisage, while offering 'world food' may not necessarily attract world customers. The perception of St Nicholas, even if unjust, may be that it’s for the urban in-crowd, with a bit of money to spare. So Mike wants to explore opportunities for community bus shuttles from Neighbourhood Renewal areas (ie. those destined for regneration) to Broadmead and St Nicholas. Another idea is to provide stalls for Bristolians who cook at home and would be interested selling through an arrangement akin to the Women's Institute Country Markets. Tying that up with local producers could give new credence to the notion of an Avon samosa.

Mike Cardwell, Bristol City Council, e-mail mike_cardwell [at] bristol - city . gov . uk
Slow Food:
Kate Hawkings of Slow Food katehawkings [at] nugenthill . fsnet . co . uk
Food For All: www . hheag . org . uk