The magic of Chesterfield’s markets - indoor and out
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
Outdoor, indoor, vintage – whatever you desire, Chesterfield has the market for you. Ashley Franklin pays a visit to Chesterfield in Market Festival week
I have a particular affection for Chesterfield Market. It was the subject of my first ever photo-feature for Derbyshire Life ten years ago. Consequently, I was nervous about the outcome. Would the Editor approve of my debut piece? She did, and I owe Chesterfield Market a debt. My lens captured such colour and atmosphere, while my pen recorded such gems as: ‘This market is like a big family department store in the open air’; or ‘As long as we’re a nation of shopkeepers, Chesterfield market will always be here.’
Yes, Chesterfield Market is still there, but what has become of it in an era when more of the nation’s shoppers either go out of town or online?
According to Markets manager Ron Thompson, the market is as popular as ever. In fact, in the last five years coach trips into town have increased to almost 400 per year. There have been notable improvements, too, over the last ten years. The age-old stalls have been completely renewed, the canopies are refreshed every year and there are now street pop-up marquees.
Even more significantly, the Market Hall, which looks as good as new from the outside after being sandblasted back to its original colour, is now also as good as new inside, thanks to a £4 million investment. ‘This hall was old, dark, dingy and smelly,’ reveals Paul Alton of the clock and watch stall Watchbox. ‘Today it’s bright, light and airy’, thanks to a new floor and stalls topped off by a glass atrium. ‘Now it feels more like a mall than a market hall,’ says Paul, approvingly. Approval, too, from the National Association of British Market Authorities, who named it Best Indoor Market in 2013. The new development also includes a refurbished Assembly Rooms and office space – with full occupancy. As for the Indoor Market, it has an impressive 95 per cent occupancy, compared with 60 per cent when it was ailing. It’s also providing the only Santa’s Grotto in the town this Christmas.
As for the market place itself, Mondays and Fridays see around 140 stalls, Saturday attracts around 160, with the take-up for Thursday’s flea market up to the maximum 200. On the Thursday I attended, the place was heaving: it was the penultimate day of the town’s fourth Market Festival – yet another new initiative in the years since my last visit – with market traders responding well to the call for Forties dress, themed entertainers and a good turn out by period re-enactors. Thwaites Brewery brought their Shire horses and decorative dray and members of the public were asked to provide knitted or crocheted squares to decorate the Market place street furniture – some lampposts were reportedly looking ‘cuddly’. An inspired idea was to encourage children to be a trader for the day, selling unwanted toys and books, and clothes that would no longer fit. Celebrity auctioneers James Lewis and Eric Knowles had also joined forces for a special Bargain Hunt, joining teams headed by the Mayor and Mayoress to purchase goods from the market traders and then auction them off for profit, with proceeds going to the Mayor’s Appeal.
The fact that the proceeds topped £500 shows that markets are still good places to pick up a bargain. James Lewis was also impressed with the market overall. As he told the Chesterfield Post: ‘Markets are dying all over the country and to come here and see it bustling with every single stand taken is something you don’t see anywhere else in the country – it’s fantastic!’
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‘It’s one of the best in the country,’ says the Mayor, Councillor Alexis Diouf. ‘It’s wonderful to see it thriving and it must endure – at all costs.’
Cllr Diouf is clearly aware of public opinion. As Paul Hind, President of the Market Traders Association, points out: ‘Whatever the political colour of the council, there’s firm commitment to the market. Townspeople won’t stand for the market being messed with. This is the beating heart of Chesterfield. Without a market, there’s no point in being called a market town, is there?’
Chesterfield has had a market for over 800 years, King John granting the town its charter in 1204 and also decreeing that it ‘shall have one market weekly for two days, that is, on Tuesday and Saturday.
Tatler’s book of 1882 ‘Old and New Chesterfield’ refers to a bustling market with ‘the fish salesman’s cry, the barter of old clothes, and the purchase of butcher’s meat.’ There is also reference to ‘rows of white stoops that edged in the square’ which appeared to have two uses other than mere adornment: they were used to prop up sacks of corn and also served as ‘back scratchers for fat farmers.’
The market grew up over the centuries selling the same wide range of produce that you would expect to find in any busy town, with possibly one exception: it was not unknown for a man to find a platform somewhere around the stalls to engage in a spot of auctioneering, with just one lot – his wife. Indeed, Roy Christian heard, as a boy in the 1920s, that this was still going on.
Stallholder Stewart Kay couldn’t have managed without his wife Pauline: they have been selling flowers at the market for nearly 30 years. They are typical long-term traders who have gradually built up the business, gaining regular and loyal customers by responding to their needs.
‘Most of our customers are friends,’ says Stewart. Pauline adding, ‘Selling flowers means you engage with people’s birthdays, anniversaries and funerals, so you follow their lives. Many of them confide in us.’
‘In a big store, you are just a customer where the relationship is rather impersonal,’ says Paul Hind. ‘In a market, it’s your business and you have to engage with your customer and spend time with them so that they return.’
‘We’re part of the social fabric of people’s lives,’ say Anita Dutton and Janet Traill, who have sold curtains and soft furnishings for over 30 years. ‘Markets are like a social hub. We’ve certainly “adopted” many customers and often feel as if we’re running social services here!’
‘We are like a proper community,’ says trader Caroline Steele. ‘We’re also one big, happy family.’
Bryan Towndrow of DHC Workwear & Country Clothing is a typical market trader who knows the business inside and out, the result of nearly 35 years of trading. As I arrived at his stall, a potential female customer in front of me said: ‘I want a price on your overalls.’
‘Ooh, they’re extortionate, my dear,’ he said, but the glint in his eye brought a smile to her face, and a trade began.
‘You don’t so much sell your goods as sell yourself,’ notes Bryan, ‘and because you’re selling for yourself, it’s all the more rewarding.’
How rewarding is it, though, arriving in the cold, damp and drizzle at 6am with it sometimes taking up to three hours to set up, and then trading in the rain?
‘When the weather is cold or miserable,’ responds Bryan, ‘I keep going by thinking what it must be like for a fisherman on a trawler. You wouldn’t even get out there even on a calm sea.’
I then experienced Bryan’s flair as a trader. I needed a couple of pairs of blue socks so I picked up a pack of three differently-coloured pairs, priced at £7.99. As I opened my wallet to pay, Bryan quickly stuffed another pack into my hand, saying: ‘Give me that tenner and you’ve got a bargain.’ Maybe it was something about his timing or maybe his swagger – probably both – but I immediately pulled out the note. ‘Have a good day, and lovely to see you’ were his departing words. Only when I walked away did I suddenly think: ‘I’m not sure I really need six pairs of blue socks,’ but I didn’t mind because part of me enjoyed the trade while the other part admired his chutzpah. I had got a bargain and he had got an extra two quid that I won’t miss.
Pertinently, the last time I bought socks at a market – not in Derbyshire I ought to say – they looked fine until I unwound them from their packing to see faded colours. Most of the traders I met spoke of the good quality of their goods. One trader admitted that a decade or so ago the market did sell a lot of ‘cheap rubbish’ but that we now need to erase the notion that markets are dominated by Trotters, tinkers and rogues.
‘The retail market is intensely competitive these days,’ says Paul Hind. ‘Customers demand a good product so, to survive, you must have quality.’
You can prosper, too, if you have a wide range of produce. Andy Johnson, who sells tools, started off 17 years ago with one stall and now has eight, containing over 2,000 items. ‘It’s got to the point now where similar stores around here send their customers to me,’ Andy points out, ‘and if I haven’t got what you want, I can get it. You also get advice borne out of long experience.’
Nick Ibbotson, whose family has been trading for 70 years, believes his fruit and vegetables ‘out-compete the supermarkets on quality, freshness and price.’ Most of his produce, he points out, is less than a day old.
Nick’s business throws up two vital issues. One is the realisation that fewer generations of young traders are moving into the family business, as Nick did. The other, more positive, issue is that in order to make the market side of the business work in an increasingly competitive world of trade, you join a part of the New World – of online trading. Nick has just embarked on a home delivery service through a new website. Other traders, I found, use eBay, while Cliff and Tracey Scott, who sell fruit and vegetables, supply pubs and restaurants and also provide a delivery service.
Another way markets are changing with the times is through embracing credit card machines. Yet another is the way stalls present themselves. ‘Nowadays you need good display units and quality canopies,’ says Bryan Towndrow. ‘Gone are the days when all you had was a board on legs and the feel of the rain dripping down your neck.’
Markets Manager Ron Thompson told me that he is addressing the need to provide better weather cover overall as well as improved lighting and electricity points.
One issue raised by a trader on my visit ten years ago was that ‘older people love the market; younger people not so – and we could also do with younger traders.’ Ron Thompson assures me they have been addressing this, too, for example running successful competitions with iPads as prizes and encouraging new young traders by offering start-up rents and even mentoring.
The rent is, I noted, a thorny issue. Some traders said it was high, others thought it reasonable. ‘Rents are competitive – they have to be in this day and age,’ says Markets Manager Ron. ‘That said, you can trade here for between £10 and £15 a day. However, the real issue is getting more people to use the markets.’
Darren Hetherington who runs Rugworld, believes Chesterfield Market has the cheapest rents in the country. He rents considerable space to show off his carpets and rugs and prefers a stall to a showroom, especially as the market is in the centre of the town, which makes his goods very accessible.
Hanh Le Marsden of New Dawn in the Market Hall, which sells household gifts including striking handmade lamps and metallic wildlife sculptures, says she prefers being in a market than a store because she sees a wider cross section of shoppers. Another vital point she makes is that the rent is lower than if she had been in the High Street; thus she can offer better prices.
There are stores all around the market, of course, and as one trader told me, ‘The shops need us as much as we need them.’
‘Market days are the busiest days in the town,’ Ron Thompson points out; ‘the High Street feeds off the market.’
Many shop owners I spoke to appreciate the value of the market and regard the traders as complementary rather than competitive business. Because the market is in the heart of the town, you can easily take in the good individual shops close by, such as award-winning butchers Meadowfresh, Peter’s Shoemakers & Repairers, Pandora, the jewellery boutique Adorn and the traditional jewellers John Stevenson, which has just won the Chesterfield Retail Best Jewellery & Accessories Business Award.
All things considered, Chesterfield Market is not as busy as it was but in spite of the belief that markets are ailing, one still gets the feeling that in this town it will last.
Andy Bond, the former Markets Manager and now Town Centre Operations Manager, believes the market will prosper not perish: ‘Chesterfield Market has several Unique Selling Points which will always attract people – the atmosphere, the fun and friendly banter, personal service and the loyalty of those who ply their trade and shop with them. Shoppers like the sense of buying from real people with opinions and time to chat. We are committed to taking this market forward with lots of improvement plans, such as using space on quieter days for performance areas. Whatever we do, we know Chesterfield Market will endure.’