Ever got lost in Norwich Market?

Norwich Market Place by David Hodgson, 1855Norwich Market Place by David Hodgson, 1855

I am an experimental cook and I often need one of Norwich Market retailers’ specialist products, but the thought of venturing into the market maze puts me off. Its fine if you have time to mosey around, but a pain if you’re in a rush; there isn’t even a decent map of the stalls. Tom Loudon of Folland’s Organics agrees that this is a real issue for the market; “people get lost and have to ask for directions because the signs are put up so high people don’t clock it”.  When asked how he would improve the market he said “more symbiosis between the stalls”. Why not have one zone for food, one for clothes, one for toys and another for books? Folland’s current neighbours’ underwear stall hardly drives the customers their way!

Though the market remains in the same central location as it has for the last 700 years, its significance to the lives of the people of Norwich has dwindled. The Market no longer feeds the city because the stall-holders can’t compete with supermarket prices. As a result they either evolve to sell specialist goods, or they disappear; to be replaced by stalls selling orange plastic guns and novelty clothing. The market’s 34 vacant stalls are a testament to how difficult this task can be. Folland’s Organics is one stall that has found its niche. Stall-owner Rob Folland and Tom Louden have sold organic fruit, vegetables and sundries for three years. Tom puts Folland’s success down to their customer base, in that people who buy organic tend to have an aversion to supermarket shopping.

In 2005 Norwich City Council invested more than £5 million on the refurbishment of the market. The aim was to renovate the old market while retaining its character. A birds-eye view of the colourful new design suggests that they succeeded, but the view from the inside is quite different. When the stalls are locked up the market’s aisles look identically bleak, making it even harder to navigate. The Times described the new market as “an anaemic shopping mall for health and safety inspectors: straight lines, wipe-clean boxy cubicles, all life and love drained out.” The 2005 refurbishment was the perfect opportunity for the council to regroup the stalls into accessible zones and grant Tom Loudon his wish. Instead they instigated survival of the fittest; the desirable outward-facing stalls went to whichever stallholders could pay the higher rent.

Walking around Norwich city centre I can feel the city’s rich history. You could wander down Elm Hill, with its cobbled street and distinctive Tudor houses. Or you might walk the other way through the Norwich Lanes towards the Market. Overlooked by the Norman Castle from the east and flanked on the south and west by St Peter Mancroft and City Hall respectively, the market’s colourful striped roofs and awnings seem to complete the picture postcard. But is the market living up to its historical roots and its current potential?

If it were up to me I would accept the five million spent in 2005 as being a bad investment and turn the market into an open square. This space could be used for gigs and performances as well as fetes, fairs and farmers’ markets. I would lose the stalls selling tat and instead focus on local produce; I would put real food back into the heart of the city and make it accessible to the people.

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