I grew up in a market town not unlike Ashbourne. It had cobbled streets and the market stalls ran up either side of the main road every Thursday and Saturday. At the top was a market square which, oddly, never held a market. The town always had supermarkets but somehow the retail ecosystem worked together. Undoubtedly it had its tough times but it was always part of the fabric of the town.
For me a market is a privilege that we should feel fortunate we are blessed with in Ashbourne. Markets are a meeting place, a gateway into the job market, a source of income to the town, a tourist attraction, an economic place to shop, a shop front for local producers, a photo opportunity, an employer…I could go on and on.
If I am honest I just don’t understand how the market has been disenfranchised in Ashbourne. When the cattle market was consolidated into Bakewell did the core customer base migrate with it? At a time when Ashbourne has just been named but The Times as one of the top ten weekend breaks it should be booming and spilling over into other areas of the town. Instead the Thursday market is barely visited and Saturday grows and shrinks with the sun. We are in one of those spirals – without enough stalls customers won’t come. Without enough customers the stallholders aren’t tempted. There is competition. Few market traders work a five day week. They pick the markets they want to be part of and we are not offering much for the traders. It’s over two years since I first wrote about Ashbourne Market and the position has not improved in that time. Maybe I am out of step with everyone else in the town and maybe, despite towns all around us looking to set up markets, we just aren’t a market town any longer. Maybe the other attractions are overtaking it. What I do know is that the days are getting longer, the temperature is rising and we are entering prime time for markets. The next few months are as good as it is going to get.
But before I give up altogether I just want to propose an alternative that builds on the strengths of what we already have.
Here’s a six point recovery and growth programme
1. Manage the existing market properly. Rather than treat it as a problem look after it properly. The stallholders should all attend regularly rain or shine. If they can’t do that they don’t really have a business anyway. They should keep their stalls tidy and well presented. In return the Council would promote and provide the market with the right environment. How about investing in new stalls which make the most of the space and make the market look better? With branded canvases which keep the wind and rain off shoppers and vendors alike? And free parking on Thursdays.
2. Go after the stalls we need. When all stalls are filled in a successful Ashbourne market the heart of it will be based around fruit and veg stalls, butchers, fishmonger and hardware. Go after them and make it difficult for them to say no to come to Ashbourne. Offer the local retailers the first option to extend their space onto the square. Maybe this would force the tiny minority of retailers who moan about the market but benefit from it to put up or shut up.
3. Integrate a market which extends beyond the square. Michelle Scattergood has led the way in using the Town Hall for specialist markets bringing new traders to the town. Someone could take advantage of this and nurture a wider “Ashbourne Markets” brand.
4. Encourage people on to the market. Markets are an entry point into retail (see Mary Portas’s views on this). We should encourage local producers, craftsmen, charities and the like to take a chance without too much risk. This not only raises revenue but also engages the local community and breeds the next group of shopowners.
5. Play to our strengths by having themed markets around the main market and which have natural organising structures around them. Vic Thorpe has championed this for years and neighbouring towns have picked up on this and just pressed ahead while we have prevaricated. Examples could be:
a. A more regular antiques market. We have lots of good antiques retailers in the town who may relish the chance to do an easier to organise version of Antiques in the Street
b. A Craft market. The popup craft shops are excellent and involve just a handful of the local talent
c. A Shrovetide themed day on the Saturday following the games where the balls could be on display, Sellors watches presented formally, awards made and maybe tie it in with a beer festival on the Square.
d. A Scottish themed market around the Highland Gathering. Make sure the bands arrive in time for a full day on Saturday with entertainment, food and the regalia associated.
e. A farmers market. We are blessed with great produce in Staffordshire and Derbyshire. Attempts in the past have not really taken off because they have been done in isolation and the definition of local produce has been stretched. Look at the Bakewell Farmer’s Market and Belper Food Fair success and work out why they wouldn’t come to Ashbourne on the second Saturday in the month for example. Give Michelle Scattergood some support and a budget and we could be in business. Engage our excellent cafes in the campaign and get them all out on the street.
f. An Armed Forces weekend. The Remembrance Parade and the Mercian Regiment March past is always well supported and we have a good heritage of supporting our troops. This could be a costumed fund raiser.
g. A Fairtrade market. We should be really proud of the town’s ethical trading.
h. Night markets and Sunday markets. Rather than compete with other neighbouring towns we could create a new product with its own followers.
6. Finally, treat the Square as a stage and have performers every weekend raising money for themselves or for Charities. The excellent StreetFest demonstrates how attractive this is for tourists and for residents. We have an excellent Performing Arts department at QEGS, the Outlaw Shakespeare company, the Town Band and lots of local bands. Give them the chance to perform regularly at weekends and this will draw their followers as well as visitors.
Of course I know nothing about the difficulties, I’m naive about the finance, and overoptimistic about the public response. It seems that Ashbourne folk have forgotten how to shop locally. They prefer to pay more at Marks and Spencer’s, at Sainsbury’s or online and let the wealth trickle out of the town. Thankfully, the rest of the UK and maybe the residents of the new houses still love markets, street entertainment and street food and maybe through them we can keep our own markets alive and even see them thrive.