Mar­ket towns: Swaffham

Matthew Rice in­tro­duces his il­lus­trated se­ries on the ar­chi­tec­tural de­lights of our mar­ket towns

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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?

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