Last edited 26 Dec 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Cambridge Market

Cambridge market.png
Gemma Bastick, whose family members have been stallholders at Cambridge Market for 75 years, with a box of produce to be delivered to a vulnerable family (Photo: John Preston).

The human response of Cambridge Market to the new circumstances presented by Covid19 is the latest in a history of service to the community that goes back to pre-university, Saxon times.

The story of Cambridge Market is one of people; of adaptation and tradition; of tangible and intangible heritage; of risk taking; of determination not to let the vulnerable become abandoned; and of the reciprocity and mutuality of relationships. And it is a story of food: an abundance of fresh, high-quality produce.

The tradition of a market in the centre of Cambridge goes back to Saxon times, some while before Cambridge became a university town. The weekly market was augmented by what was to become the largest fair in Europe: the Sturbridge Fair. In 1199 King John granted the Leper Chapel at Steresbrigge dispensation to hold a three-day fair to raise money to support the lepers. Things moved more slowly back in medieval times and it was 12 years later, in 1211, that the first Sturbridge Fair was held on the Feast of the Holy Cross (14 September) on the open land of Sturbridge Common, alongside the river Cam.

Time moved again, and ships and barges brought fish, wine, salt and luxuries to the docks all along the river. Local people and villagers came from all around Cambridge to the market, to trade, gossip and see justice done: the market was also the site of the jail and public whippings, the stocks and beheadings. This is one tradition that we are delighted no longer to have here in Cambridge.

The market square still gives a view of traditional, striped fixed stalls, with what is still a mix of stallholders bringing goods both essential and non-essential every day of the week. This is the story of those stallholders selling the freshest food and produce, who kept people in Cambridge healthy and very well fed over the whole of the lockdown (and the bike repair man kept NHS workers on the road by repairing their bikes in time for the end of their shifts).

At the beginning of the lockdown many of the traders, those selling highly perishable fresh produce, hesitantly brought themselves into the market and set up their stalls, with no idea if people would come. People did come, slowly to begin with and then in long queues, keeping themselves in a very wide-open weave among surrounding empty stalls. They were keen; Leigh, who sells the freshest fish, said that on mornings when he arrived at 7.30, people had already been queuing for half an hour. A traditional fishmonger, Leigh sells whole fish, which he will expertly clean and gut for you. Such fish is no longer sold in supermarkets, even before this virus imposed such huge changes to our lives. There is a traditional cheesemonger who will sell you the tiniest piece from a lump of cheese, or any number of whole small artisan cheeses.

This is a story of service to a community. All through lockdown Cambridge market has been open, offering food with far fewer food miles than the supermarkets. When supermarket shelves were empty, the market was open with fresh food in abundance: none more so than the fruit and vegetable pick your own stall. It was the understanding of the great value of what is on offer that brought Cambridge people to the market square, and the stallholders have responded. There is a reciprocity in those nervous two-metre smiles, which have become mutually broader and broader as Cambridge buys out what is on offer. It was clear to several of the stallholders that some of their regulars were not coming into town.

So, they provided a delivery service to the vulnerable and those self-isolating. It is in the nature of market traders that they are small units: one, two or three people, or a small family group. It is no mean feat to bring to market an abundance of fresh produce, at the same time as putting all that is needed into place to make deliveries happen. These exhausted-looking key workers succeeded in making both happen. And this is a story of reciprocity and the value of relationships.

At this time of virus and distance, what the market is giving us here in this historic town is the value and power of those traditional face-to-face relationships: those relationships that are vital to us as expressions of our humanity.

This article originally appeared as ‘Cambridge Market’s living heritage’ in Context 165, published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in August 2020. It was written by Kati Preston, a board member of Cambridge Sustainable Food.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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