Market towns: Swaffham
Matthew Rice introduces his illustrated series on the architectural delights of our market towns
SOME of the country’s best buildings are in its market towns. These settlements, usually founded in the Middle Ages, are bigger than villages and defined by historical licences to hold markets granted by the Crown. As the wastes and wildernesses of Britain were tamed and more and more land came into cultivation, increasing agricultural surpluses needed to change hands. In a period when transport was unreliable, markets needed to be reached (and returned from) in an easy day’s walk and so they’re scattered across the country at a distance of about eight miles from their neighbours.
As trade increased, so some towns in agriculturally prosperous areas grew and developed grander buildings. Larger towns supported guilds of craftsmen, the precursors of the country’s future industrial power. Although some towns specialised in weaving or metalwork, all had basic trades and these required workshops, storerooms and stabling. This activity, as well as visiting farmers or customers, meant a call for inns and, later, hotels. Every market needed a building in which trade could be regulated and weights and measures policed. Most also possessed a market cross around which the market operated.
As towns developed, these buildings were augmented by permanent shops and, in due course, town halls, schools and assembly rooms. The 19th century saw the addition of libraries, fire stations and a bewildering assortment of Nonconformist chapels. However, such public buildings of the late 19th century are rarely vernacular in the sense that they’re no longer built of local materials in regional styles. The network of canal, rail and road transport quickly meant that a police station in Kent could be the twin of one in Westmorland.
The Industrial Revolution caused mass migration from the country to the newly developing mill towns and cities. As the population moved, distribution of food became more ambitious. Wholesale markets were built in Birmingham or Manchester, crates were stacked high on railway sidings and city dairies, abbatoirs and refrigeration changed the treatment of agricultural produce. Other goods were increasingly produced in industrialised workshops and towns specialised in one product or another. The end of the 20th century saw yet more challenges as livestock markets consolidated into regional centres and supermarkets absorbed huge swathes of trade previously carried out by grocers, greengrocers and butchers.
Is online shopping the nail in the coffin for our historic market towns or are some of them brushing themselves off and keeping the flame alive with clever shopkeepers, festivals, fairs, specialists and, the mainstay of a successful town, butchers? Shops and even pubs are being converted into houses and there is a real appetite for the beauty, interest and, frequently, the affordability of markettown property. Clever homebuyers are realising that a handsome three-storey, five-bay Georgian miller’s house with stables and a decent garden may be bought for the price of a large cottage and you can buy a skinny latte on the way to church, too.
This is the first of an occasional series of portraits of some of the country’s most characteristic and beautiful small market towns.
Is online shopping the nail in the coffin for our historic market towns?