Last edited 02 Jan 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Significance and heritage protection at Cambridge Market

There is no sign of a resolution to the competing demands on Cambridge’s historic market square: the traders and the council seem to have very different ideas about what to do with it.

Cambridge market stalls.png
A view over the market (Photo: Friends of Cambridge Market).

Cambridge’s present market square dates from 1855, when new setts and a central gothic fountain were laid out following a major fire. The centrepiece of the market remains the truncated base of this fountain, now Grade II listed; the upper sections were demolished in the 1950s. The market is overlooked by the Grade I listed Great St Mary’s Church to the west, the Grade I listed 5 Market Hill to the east, the Grade II listed Guildhall to the south, and further Grade II listed buildings to the north and east. The whole area, apart from the roadway bordering the market and modern pavements, is identified in the historic core appraisal as an area of historic paving. The stalls themselves are modern, but have highly characteristic multicolour striped canopies.

Cambridge’s market square has many competing demands on it. It is not only a seven-day marketplace but also Cambridge’s prime civic space, the destination for demonstrations and rallies, speeches and gatherings outside the Guildhall. Successive city leaders have had ambitions to improve the square. In 1995 these got as far as plans for a redesign, a trial area of new paving with different granite samples, and a competition for a replacement fountain. The winning fountain design was unpopular, but the proposals for the square foundered on the need to replace the drains. This would have required digging up the square; to do this, the traders would have to be moved. As the then director of planning Peter Studdert said in a later interview: ‘Where were the traders going to go? The logistics of finding space for them somewhere in the city was mind-boggling.’ [1]

The 2006 Historic Core Conservation Area Appraisal noted that ‘today the market continues to be the thriving heart of the day-time city’, but that ‘the Victorian fountain is a sad shadow of its former glory and any enhancement scheme should attempt to raise its profile… The major opportunity is to build on the life and vibrancy of the market during the day and spread this into the night… The atmosphere changes after dark and, to some, the square becomes threatening.’ The 2016 appraisal update added: ‘The market stalls seem relatively flimsy given that they are near-permanent fixtures of the space. Although the canopies were recently replaced there is potential to enhance the marketplace considerably by upgrading the stalls to larger, more robust structures and using better quality materials.’ [2]

Civic ambitions have increased with Cambridge’s rapid growth (‘a further 14,000 homes to be provided or in the city by 2031’), and 7–8 million visitors a year. The city council allocated £100,000 provided by the Greater Cambridge Partnership from its 2018-9 budget towards ‘a strategic development project to enhance the economic, social and environmental value of the market square public realm as a key community asset to support the city’s growth.’ [3] The market did not feature in the project description. The council’s brief to its consultant BDP included the taking up and possible complete removal of the cobbles, and a ‘concept design (a) to maximise the availability and flexibility of outdoor public realm space to accommodate both commercial and community use, including market, outdoor films, civic gatherings, commercial events (such as an ice rink), street performers, outdoor seating for restaurants and cafes, etc.’ BDP was asked to review how the market currently functioned day and night, and ‘how the day- and night-time offers could be improved to better support the needs of Cambridge as a global city.’

From talking with traders, Kati and I were aware that something was afoot, but the council had not talked to the individual traders, whose livelihoods were most directly affected. A range of invited stakeholders did not include the interested public and market customers such as ourselves. Thanks to the dynamism of one stallholder, Glenys Self (who has been selling her jewellery on the market for 20 years), a packed public meeting was held in January last year in Great St Mary’s, and the Friends of Cambridge Market came into being. But how to proceed? When the stalls are not of special historic interest in themselves, how to protect the market use and activity? Glenys set up a public petition to save the historic cobbles (setts), asking for them to be ‘re-set so they are wheelchair and disabled usable and easy to clean.’ This gained over 1,000 signatures. I drafted an application to get the setts listed, together with some railings which form part of the mid-19th-century layout. I felt this was a very long shot; I had never previously heard of floorscape being listed. I submitted my report, backed by many supportive responses to the petition, in March 2019.

In July, BDP submitted its feasibility assessment to the council. This provides a good overview of the history of the space and the market, but a very partial assessment of significance. The market square is described as ‘the primary town square and public space of the city centre. A road frames the outer edge, while a permanent market for food and craft is erected in the centre of the square, dictating the use of the square. A historic fountain is in the centre, however it is hidden by the marketmarket square is a well-proportioned hard space that holds heritage elements, including the listed fountain and historic set paving. However, as the most prevalent feature of the space, the market use currently hides many of these features… Views towards key facades are restricted by the central market, in particular prominent buildings such as Great St Mary’s and the Guildhall’. What a strange notion, that a historic market (albeit carried on in modern stalls) impedes views of the (much later) listed buildings on and around it! Contrast this with the Victoria County History’s assessment: ‘Cambridge was and is an important market centre. The market stands on one of the oldest inhabited sites of the borough and perpetually reminds the observer that the town is older than the university and has an independent raison d’être. No grant of a market by charter was necessary; it was established by local need and ancient custom well before the Norman Conquest’ [4].

BDP suggested four possible levels of intervention, ranging from ‘re-pave, re-lay and de-clutter’ to ‘re-create the square – large infrastructure’. It did not mention, let alone tackle, the key issue (on which the 1995 project had foundered) of how and where to relocate the traders during works. The council noted that ‘the completion of the feasibility study marks the start of a multi-phase project to develop a detailed development plan and associated investment strategy for the market square. The next phase of the project is to develop a proposed vision and concept design for the square, which is capable of implementation and attracting the capital investment required to deliver it. On 28 October, ‘key stakeholders’ were invited to market square vision workshops in November and December. Kati and I managed to get on the invitation list, the first time that the council had recognised residents and shoppers as key stakeholders.

Glenys Self describes the setts as ‘like a Persian carpet – a magical surface which you feel better for seeing and better for walking on.’ The listing [5] notes architectural interest (‘the setts are an integral part of the mid-19th-century scheme for the expansion and re-laying of the Market Place and can be accurately dated to 1855–1856; given that the use of granite setts only became widespread from the 1830s, this is a relatively early surviving example of a large area of historic paving; the handsomely designed railings are of good quality ironwork and, other than one gate, are in their original condition’); historic interest (‘as good quality examples of 19th-century street furniture, they make an important contribution to the historic streetscene; along with the Grade II listed fountain in the centre of the Market Place, they form a significant ensemble of historic street furniture in the commercial and civic heart of the city’); and group value (‘they have strong group value with the listed fountain and with a large number of listed buildings surrounding the Market Place, notably the Grade I listed Church of St Mary the Great on the west side and the Grade II listed Guildhall on the south side’).

Two days later, just before the first vision workshop, we were overjoyed to hear that Historic England had listed the setts and railings at Grade II.

The elation was short-lived. Protection of the setts was a promising step, accepted without public demur by the council, but what about the market itself? All the feasibility study proposals entail moving traders and their stalls while works are carried out, but to where? The traders (well over 100, for the 99 stalls used for the seven-day market) had not been consulted individually on their views or needs. There was no indication of whether, or if so how, they could be enabled to keep going elsewhere during any of the suggested options. For those traders who might be able to come back, there was and is a clear expectation on the part of council members and officers that this will have to be to demountable stalls, otherwise the council’s vision of a flexible space used for civic events and evening entertainments could not be realised. The feasibility study did not consider the logistics for the traders, including the time and effort required to dismantle stalls in the evening and erect them in the morning, the incredibly long hours that stallholders already work, or the fact that occupancy of many of the stalls changes from day to day.

In January, the council held two more workshops for invited organisations, and two for market traders. [6] The council showed ‘comparable squares and illustrative examples’. Its presentation to the traders highlighted issues, the top four of which were ‘fixed stall infrastructure presents issues to project – can’t use space for anything else. Makes square difficult to clean and attracts anti-social behaviour at night; Cambridge is a global city and the square currently is not fitting; there is a lack of seating; and it’s not pleasant for eating or just enjoying the space.’

In response, 86 stallholders have submitted a petition to the council, saying: ‘1) Fixed stalls are good in high winds, temporary stalls no good in high winds; 2) Fixed stalls no extra work (city council responsible for erecting and taking down), temporary stalls a lot of work – who will do it?; 3) Fixed stalls support stock display. Temporary stalls can’t.’

There is no sign of a resolution to the competing demands on the square. What the traders want and need is the opposite of what they are being presented with by the council. Meanwhile, the only restaurant with an active frontage directly on the square, and outside tables, has just closed after 47 years, citing Covid19 and competition from the hot food stalls (the council has encouraged a greatly increased hot food offer in recent years). The High Street Task Force’s press release announcing support for high streets included a photo of the north end of Cambridge Market. The green umbrellas in the background belong to the closed restaurant.

The council’s proposals are now on hold due to the Covid19 crisis. Hopefully, the pause will enable greater understanding, more realistic aspirations, and a meeting of minds.

  • [1] Interview by Michelle Shepherd-Barron, Cambridge Agenda, November 2004.
  • [2] www.democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/documents/g3256/Public%20reports%20pack%2022nd-Feb-2018%2018.05%20Council.pdf?T=10
  • [3] www.democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/documents/g3256/Public%20reports%20pack%2022nd-Feb-2018%2018.05%20Council.pdf?T=10
  • [4] The City of Cambridge: economic history, Victoria County History, London, 1959
  • [5] www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/listentry/1467164
  • [6] www.cambridge.gov.uk/media/8381/marketsquare-redevelopmentstakeholder-workshopfindings.pdf

This article originally appeared in Context 165, published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in August 2020. It was written by John Preston, historic environment consultant for the Friends of Cambridge Market.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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