Producing the Goods 2

Markets and Market Places : Casebooks

Markets represent our oldest and most successful form of exchange. They are the reason why many towns exist, inhabiting the same spot for nine hundred years, some may predate Roman occupation. The impulse of the market, with its range of seasonal and local goods, has maintained the interdependence of town and hinterland reflecting and feeding back into both the culture and nature of the place.

There are well over 1,700 markets in the UK through which we spend £1.3billion. Many markets are under threat and imagination will be needed to maintain their excitement, richness, local distinctiveness and importance for local environmental and social cohesiveness, connecting town and country.

Markets as windows into the local world

Nothing can beat the bustle of a market to get you into a place. All kinds of people jostle with all manner of goods in a carnival of excitement. The street cries, the feel of the crowd, the range of goods on offer - livestock, clothes, pottery, cloth, bric-a-brac, antiques… are all part of the personality of the place. We concentrate in this pamphlet on food - remember the smells of the fish market on the quay in Looe, the night sounds of the forklift trucks moving wholesale vegetables at Borough, the babble of echoes in the great Victorian market hall in Leeds, the breakfasts in the new livestock market in Bakewell.

Things change, many for the better, but we are in danger of losing something special when we allow the market place to be overcome as a permanent car park, banished, or lost because it is messy, challenging or worth asset stripping. Many markets have suffered years of municipal neglect and regeneration schemes have favoured superstores and big developers over local exchange.  We are losing real competitive pricing, access to fresh local foods, direct sales, ethnic and regional variegation, as well as the cultural and natural cogs of local distinctiveness in growing, making and selling close at hand. Having lost the links, both town and countryside suffer.

Air and truck-freighted food hastens global warming, exploits under-protected habitats and animals and un-represented farmers, diminishes seasonal and local difference and takes away our knowledge of the production process. We must embrace these responsibilities: what we eat and buy has impacts, we can be part of the solution. Some good things are happening: farmers' markets have reinvented direct sales, the WI country markets are gaining in confidence, some town managers are pursuing quality and innovation. It took Flemish and Huguenot refugees to revolutionise vegetable growing in England in the sixteenth century. Now city folk, Bengalis, Somalis, Latvians with agrarian roots, market-place knowledge, ideas and energy are helping to revivify farming and markets here.

Plural communities with many food cultures need manifold means of buying and selling. Many goods such as spices and bananas will come from far away simply because we do not have the climate to produce them, and they all have seasons, too.  But we need to grow much more of our own fruit and vegetables – UK production fell by 37% between 1997 and 2002.

Markets were the starting point for many towns – places of exchange at an ancient cross roads, under the abbey walls, beside the lowest ford or only bridge. Within a days walk (six and two thirds of a mile enabled you and animals to walk there and back) flat East Anglia is smattered with equidistant market towns. The Old English word Ceap means market, as well as bargain, Cheapside, Cheap Street can be found from Halifax to Birmingham. Chipping Ongar, Chipping Barnet, Chipping Warden, have the same root and meaning.

Now, livestock markets are becoming rarer as animals are traded on the internet and farming itself is changing. Once beasts were sold in the high streets, then in pens and buildings, those that remain may have been pushed more than once to the outskirts of town. The role of wholesale markets continues to decline as ever more food is sold through superstores, which command direct trading relationships with producers, cutting out the need for middle men. Traditional markets may now be dominated by open-air retailers selling cheap clothes made in the Philippines, plastic goods from China, batteries from a back street, CDs from a back bedroom. Many of the food traders buy wholesale foods imported from the shrinking globe, ironing out seasons and provenance. But glimpses of locality will be reflected through some of the produce on sale, some of it will be at its best in its own season. Home grown garlic on the Isle of Wight, Cornish Earlies in Liskeard, samphire in Norfolk, asparagus in the Vale of Evesham, leeks in Lincoln will find their way onto the stalls. Similarly, Seville oranges for marmalade are a winter wonder while September brings small, sweet yellow Indian mangoes, quite different from the big fragrant Brazilians. Markets can offer all these things and more, with a flexibility and opportunism not possible among superstore giants obsessed with year-round availability and standardisation.

Producing the Goods 2 (markets and market places) is available as a 24 page illustrated pamphlet. Individual A5 printed copies are available for £1.50 plus postage from our MARKET PLACE (discounts are available for orders of 50 or more; contact info [at] commonground . org . uk, for details & prices, +44(0)1747 850820).

Case Studies:

  Tenbury Wells Mistletoe Market  
  Queen's Market, Newham
  St Nicholas Markets, Bristol
  London Farmers' Markets
  Devon Pannier markets
  Bradford Markets
  Miles Platting Food Project, Manchester
  Stockport market
  Eccleshall farmers market

Producing the Goods 3 : Festivals, Food, Culture and Place