Paul Miller looks at the town's market and what can be done to keep it going.
I GREW up in a market town not unlike Ashbourne. It had cobbled streets and there were market stalls 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. The market had its tough times but it was always part of the fabric of the town.
A market is a privilege and we should feel fortunate that we are blessed with one in Ashbourne. Markets are a meeting place, a gateway into the job market, a source of income, 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.
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 by The Times as one of the top ten weekend break destinations 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.
It is more than 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.
But, before I give up all together, I 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 market properly. The stallholders should all attend regularly, rain or shine. 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 new stalls which make the most of the space and make the market look better? And free parking on Thursdays.
2: Go after the stalls we need. At the heart will be fruit and veg sellers, butchers, fishmongers and hardware. Make it difficult for them to say no to come to Ashbourne. Offer local retailers the first option to extend their space on to the square.
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. Local producers, craftsmen, charities and the like can take a chance without too much risk.
5: Play to our strengths by having themed markets around the main market. 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 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.
A craft market – the pop-up craft shops are excellent.
A Shrovetide-themed day on the Saturday following the games where the balls could be on display, awards made – maybe tie it in with a beer festival on the square.
A Scottish-themed market around the Highland Gathering.
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.
An Armed Forces weekend – the Remembrance Parade and the Mercian Regiment march-past is always well supported and we have a good heritage of backing troops.
A Fairtrade market – we should be really proud of the town's ethical trading.
Night markets and Sunday markets – rather than compete with other towns we could create a new product with its own followers.
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.
Of course, I know nothing about the difficulties, I'm naive about the finance and over-optimistic about the public response. It seems that Ashbourne folk have forgotten how to shop locally. They prefer to pay more at Marks and Spencer, at Sainsbury's or online and let the wealth trickle out of the town.
The rest of the UK and maybe the residents of the new houses still love markets, street entertainment and street food. Maybe through them we can keep our own markets alive and even see them thrive.