Biggleswade is a Market town situated in Bedfordshire between Cambridge and Bedford and is on the main London Commuter belt. It has held a royal market charter since 1227 when King Henry III granted it full market town status. The Town Council is extremely proud of the market’s heritage and its ongoing success and in March 2011, with the Saturday market proving ever popular, they introduced a further weekly market that is held on a Tuesday. A popular farmers’ market takes place on the last Wednesday of each month apart from December 2015, which will be held on the 23rd December.
The Market Square in Biggleswade is closed off to traffic on a Saturday to allow for a bigger trading area. On the midweek market, the road remains open and the market takes over one side of the street. There is sufficient access and parking for traders and shoppers can take advantage of the many free parking areas around town, although they are all subject to time restrictions.
Unlike many market towns, Biggleswade town centre appears to be thriving and there are still quite a few independent shops mixed in with the usual high street stores. Everything seems close together and as an added bonus, it’s an attractive town.
Biggleswade Town Council, who operate the market, allocate a stall each week for a local charity (or local branch of a national charity) to take advantage of. On the day I visited, representatives for the council were selling primed, wooden stars for children to decorate, either on the stall with various coloured pens provided, or to take home to decorate, ready to hang on the town’s Christmas tree when they have their official Christmas lights switch on.
I didn’t choose the best Saturday to visit, in fact the weather was atrocious and so there wasn’t a full complement of traders. That said, the majority had braved the elements and a fair trade was made between the showers. The market has a good selection of products on offer and on average you can expect to find around twenty stalls selling everything from fresh bread to bedding plants and pet beds, these are just a selection that were available on the day.
Lee Crawley of Crawley Family Butchers is exactly what you would expect from a time served market trader. With 53 years under his belt (I think I must have misheard him) he has a fantastic rapport with his customers and knows what many of them want. He has his own range of sausages, with some interesting varieties, including the Palace Royals and he is also known for his steaks. The rest of his meat he buys in and butchers for the customer in the trailer, offering them
the choice of picking up one of his value freezer packs or having what they want by weight.
Lee has been at Biggleswade for three and a half years, just on a Saturday and attends a number of other local markets. He commented. ‘I like it here, I’ve got some good customers and we have a great rapport. It’s a friendly market.’
Hippos Haberdashery is a traditional stall selling a large variety of wool, buttons, ribbon and braid.
Husband and wife team, Anthony and Mary Clifton are the last in their generation of traders and have been selling to the people of Biggleswade for 12 years. At 71, Anthony admitted that it’s hard work sometimes and they still work three days a week. Mary watches all the crafting programmes and anticipates what is going to be popular. They have seen an upsurge in crafting in recent years with more and more youngsters getting into the hobby and learning to knit. Their stall was a constant flurry of activity, whether it was someone placing an order, collecting an order or rummaging through the various items.
Artisan Bread wholesalers, Bread Basket, have a regular stall on a Saturday and Tuesday and although two bread providers may seem a lot for a small market, they differ considerably from Woods Bakery in that they predominantly sell large loaves of specialist breads.
Woods Bakery is a wholesale bakery based in Biggleswade. They bake specifically for the wholesale trade and sell a large quantity of rolls, loaves, cakes, pies and tarts. They have been trading at the market for around 30 years and the business is now managed by the son. Trade was steady throughout the day and they soon sold out of many lines. One of their more unusual items was the chocolate toothpaste tart, which I can only assume to be chocolate and mint. As it was a family sized tart I decided not to try one, but it certainly looked interesting.
Antony (Ant) Whiteman is a very well known face on the market circuit, having held various roles within the trade but he wasn’t selling his antique tools as he had kindly offered to introduce me to some of the stall holders. Ant is one of these people who has adapted what he sells over the years as he has seen trends come and go and cheap imports make trading of certain goods impossible. Prior to the antique tools he was selling hardware and prior to that, pottery. He is one of Biggleswade’s temporary traders as he also can be found at country fairs and steam and vehicle rallies.
It was Ant that suggested that Stuart of D&S Services, give the market a go after they traded together at a recent steam fair. Stuart sells pet beds and accessories and joined the market a couple of months ago. There is an established pet food supplier already at the market and Stuart explained that they have a gentleman’s agreement where they don’t sell the same stock and they will often refer to the other when a customer is after something that the other retails. Although his product range doesn’t warrant a great amount of repeat business, he’s delighted with sales and the support that he has received from Colin, the Market Superintendent and the other traders, ‘Everyone here has been brilliant and very supportive, even helping me setting up and offering advice. It’s a lovely atmosphere and Colin has been great.’
Another newcomer to Biggleswade is Mark Jakes of Mark’s Snax. My visit was his first week selling hot drinks (which were very welcome) breakfast baps and burgers. He had been based at a retail park for 22 years before changes in policy forced him to move on. This is his first attempt at market trading and he intends to join the Tuesday market team too. Trade may have been slow due to the weather but fellow traders were very supportive.
Still making a name for themselves at the market and conveniently situated between the meat and fruit and veg stalls was the fish stall. The company buy all their fresh fish from Billingsgate and are London based, trading around the south east. They took over a couple of months ago after the previous fresh fish retailer left. Their stock was simply presented on ice in insulated boxes and when a customer ordered some herring, they offered to gut and de-head it for her – exactly what you would expect from a good fishmonger.
Geoff and Julie at the Cardbox were limited to the range of stock they could display because of the weather but they still had a vast array of Christmas cards, bags and paper available for customers to purchase. They have been selling cards for 25 years and before that, fabric. They work six days at markets across the neighbouring counties but have a particular fondness for Biggleswade. Geoff commented, ‘We have very loyal customers here, this is a nice town and the people are very friendly, we often get gifts dropped off to us at Christmas.’
Tick Tock Time clearly put a lot of effort and thought in to the presentation of their watches. John Godfrey, with the help of his son trade at various markets across Hertfordshire and has been at Biggleswade for two to three years. He previously sold porcelain dolls. As well as watches and straps, they also offer watch repairs and battery replacements. I asked him how he competes with high street shops and he said simply, ‘We don’t rip people off! They come to use because they know we do a good job. We get a lot of repeat business.’
Coco Fashion’s stall may have been small but all of Harvey’s pashminas, capes and woollen ponchos were beautifully presented. He’s been in the trade for fifty years and at Biggleswade Saturday market for six months. His stock varies, dependant on what is in fashion and he always aims to have quality items that are cheaper than the high street. He is happy with trade levels, having established a few regular customers and thinks that footfall has increased. He expects a flurry of activity in the run up to Christmas. There are also regular ladies and gentleman’s fashion retailers at the market selling a range of clothing and hosiery.
Lee of The Zone has also diversified his offering over the years. He started off in shops, with the last one closing three years ago and joined the market a year later. He sells a range of products from pictures, gifts, costume jewellery and bags. The colourful display entices the customer in and Lee has clearly thought about the best way to display his merchandise to best effect. He started selling bags a year ago and has managed to source affordable, quality impulse buy bags.
Les Ward is one of the longest serving traders and he has an impressive regular customer base for his family owned fruit and vegetable business. His grandfather started the business in 1938, with his father taking over in the 70s. In 1995 Les took over with his cousin and as well as operating the market stall, they have three shops in Histon, Cottenham and Cambridge. His stall has several legs running off the main tables, to help with congestion and he tries to stock as much seasonal and local produce as he can. As is the case with many traditional greengrocers, the presentation of his stall is very important and all his produce was well presented and looked to be of the best quality. As well as being a greengrocer, he also sells cut flowers, which complements the offerings of the plant stall.
Colin Keeble is the Market Superintendent, Chair of the Market Trader’s Committee and owner of CK Nurseries. His nursery is just three miles away from the market and he has been working with and selling plants since the age of twelve. Not knowing anything else he set up his own nursery and his wife and daughter help him on his stall, selling, plants, bulbs, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and at this time of year, wreaths and Christmas Trees. He understands the need to diversify and to offer customers a choice, he explained, ‘You need to keep people interested and give them a reason to keep coming back. You can’t afford to be complacent; you need to be ahead of the game all the time and take the rough with the smooth.’
His passion for the market is evident and it is clear that the traders have a lot of respect for him and often run ideas past him. To support the market through difficult times, he pushed the council for a 50% rent reduction, which was implemented in August and will run until further notice.
Although there is a varied range of goods available at Biggleswade, it’s missing a few obvious things such as cheese and eggs. Opportunities exist for new traders at all of the markets. Enquiries regarding the Saturday and Tuesday markets should be directed to Colin Keeble, Market Superintendant – 07976 529624.
Enquiries relating to the farmers’ market should be directed to the Town Council office 01767 313134, email- firstname.lastname@example.org.