Stevenage Farmers Market
While Stevenage Farmers Market is a new innovation for the town, its roots go way back into history, nearly 800 years.
Before the 13th century, Stevenage was a small and rather insignificant village sited around St Nicholas Church. In the early 1200s, Stevenage moved westwards down into the shallow valley along which ran the already ancient main road which today forms the High Street.
The establishment of a market was a central part of this transformation from lowly village to town and the first recorded market in Stevenage was in 1223. The 100-strong population of the old village of the 1100s rose ten-fold within a century. In 1281 the market and fair were given permanent status with the granting of a Royal Charter.
The market occupied much of the High Street, from outside the Red Lion northwards to the Bowling Green. Its centre was no doubt marked by a market cross and although this has long gone, a house of this name existed at the north end of Middle Row in the 18th century.
As with virtually all life in the town, the White Lion was at the centre of market activity and in the 1700s there were 'layers' at the rear, just a few yards beyond the site of today's Farmers Market, where butchers could pick out cattle with greater freedom than the pens in the High Street.
While the fortune of the market waxed and waned, a long period of disuse began in 1840. The fair continued, albeit on different dates to those of the medieval era and in the 19th century transformed itself into the pleasure fair it remains today.
After some decades of rapid growth of Stevenage, the market was revived after the First World War, occupying the core of its traditional site, the market place opposite the White Lion stretching between the north end of Middle Row and the west end of Basils Road.
In the 1950s, the market, held on Saturdays, experienced something of a boom as new residents moved into the area with the building of Stevenage New Town.
However, while the New Town gave the market a temporary boost, its administrators would within a few years bring an end to the market.
After a short-lived market in Cuttys Lane in 1954, a market had been established in the New Town Centre at the end of the 1950s on Thursdays and Fridays. The authorities wanted to open this market on Saturdays, but as Hitchin market was (and is) held on a Saturday, an objection was raised to there being two markets in Stevenage on that day.
The solution of the Stevenage Development Corporation and the Urban District Council was to bring the traditional market in the High Street to an abrupt end and despite local outcry, the market ceased from 4 March 1961. By then the Stevenage High Street area had for a decade been designated a neighbourhood area of the New Town, and it appeared that after 738 years Stevenage the market town (by then styled the 'Old Town neighbourhood'), would never again see a market.
There was an attempt to hold a market at the rear of what was then Lloyds Bank (and is now the Wetherspoons pub the Standing Order) in the 1970s but this did not come to fruit.
In 1997, just 16 years after the 700th anniversary of its charter was celebrated, an attempt was made by Stevenage Borough Council to move Stevenage Fair away from the High Street, which naturally caused an uproar.
After some heated public meetings and a large petition, the proposal was dropped. At the end of a Local Committee Meeting at the Cromwell Hotel, the question was asked: 'Now that our fair appears to be safeguarded, can we have our market back?'
This question continued to be asked at Local Committee Meetings and as time went on, more and more of those present said 'yes, what about the market?'. The growing popularity of farmers markets after the turn of the century made the prospect of a farmers market increasingly attractive and early in 2008 Stevenage Borough Council agreed to hold a one-off trial farmers market, on a car park rather than in the market place in the High Street.
By this time, the farmers market had the full backing of the Local Committee under the chairmanship of Councillor David Kissane, without which it would have remained just an idea.
The manager of the White Lion had already made some enquiries with Greene King headquarters and on hearing of the car park plan, declared 'If we can't have it out the front, we'll have one at the rear'. Stevenage Borough Council officers visited the White Lion Yard on 27 February 2008 and agreed that this would be a far better location than the car park by the Methodist Church, and on 15 March a trial market was held with great success.
Two further markets were held by Stevenage Borough Council, on 14 June and 13 September, also meeting with success, and a non-profit-making committee of local residents was formed to run the market in future.
The first market held under the auspices of the Stevenage Farmers Market Committee, was held on 8 November 2008, with a special Christmas market taking place on 20 December. From the first market held in March 2008, stallholders have reported very brisk sales and the people of Stevenage have also made their satisfaction known.
While its roots may be in the past, Stevenage Farmers Market is looking firmly to the future. For many years Stevenage has tended to be rather inward-looking and had little connection with the prime agricultural country which surrounds it.
The Farmers Market is intended to help overcome this and also help start the regeneration of the High Street as a thriving shopping area, after 60 years when authority has tried to force this delightful market town centre into the straitjacket of a mid-20th century 'neighbourhood centre'. The market is emphatically not an 'old town neighbourhood' phenomenon — it is Stevenage Farmers Market for all 80,000 inhabitants of every part of the town.
The reappearance of a market in the High Street's market place over the road from the White Lion received the go-ahead on 16 July 2012 and the first market was held there on 11 August 2012.