St Albans market has had a Royal charter since 1553 although documentation goes back to the 9th century. The cathedral city is on the London commuter belt of Hertfordshire, situated approximately twenty miles away from the capital, between Hatfield and Hemel Hempstead.
The market runs the length of St Peters Street on a Wednesday and Saturday and is one of the largest mid week markets in the country, with capacity for 160 stalls. Currently some 120 are erected on Wednesdays, and 145 on Saturdays.
For a town that’s home to such a large number of commuters to have such a successful midweek market is unusual and there are a number of factors that contribute to this. The market has a number of long serving traders and the range of commodities available is vast, from top end products including golf clubs and jewellery, through to seating foam cut to size and a specialist wholefoods stall and not forgetting the market staples of fresh produce, all of which match the varied customer base who visit the market.
The market team are in the process of gathering data in the form of a shopper questionnaire to determine what brings them to St Albans market and this research has shown that visitors travel from areas including London, Oxford and Essex as well as attracting their local residents. Shoppers regularly score the market highly on the quality and range of their offerings although the majority of the shoppers say that their main purpose for shopping there is for core produce, such as fruit and vegetables. They have signed up to the Real Deal campaign so that customers can be assured of the quality of goods.
The bright blue and yellow canopies (the city’s colours) are easy to spot and present a uniform brand identity. St Albans City and District Council, who operate the market, are looking to invest in new stalls in the coming years. Its success is high on the council’s agenda and they are looking to add to the specialist events that take place throughout the year to complement the Charter Market. These already include a monthly Farmer’s Market, three two-day French Markets, a Continental Market in May and of course the now established Christmas Market, held in the grounds of the Cathedral, which attracted over 103,000 visitors over the 25 day period that it ran last year – this year it promises to be bigger and better. In addition, plans are under consideration to introduce artisan, vintage, or antiques markets on selected Sundays throughout the year.
Market Manager Darren Lynch joined in his current capacity around a year and a half ago, having previously worked with the authority in a financial role and has developed strong relationships with the traders, which was apparent during my visit. He was also responsible for introducing the ‘Street Food Zone’, which has become an essential part of the lunchtime routine for workers and school children in the city on a Wednesday, as well as attracting outside visitors.
The idea was to provide a selection of different eateries within a designated area of the market to improve the take away food offering. Prior to this initiative, there were the ubiquitous burger vans and an alternative in the form of Caribbean cuisine.
I asked Carmen of Carmen’s Caribbean Kitchen, who has been trading at St Albans for eight years, how the new food area had impacted on her business. She admitted that she had been rather sceptical at first but has found that by increasing the hot food offering, it has brought more people to the market and her trade has improved. She has embraced the change and likes the new ideas brought by customers and has adapted her menu to suit, although the traditional staples of jerk chicken, rice and peas, dumplings and curried mutton can still be bought from her.
One of the first to join the new food zone was Chrissy’s Cupcakes, run by husband and wife Chrissy and Barry. Barry is the baker and Chrissy the ‘brains of the business’, – his words, not mine! They offer a range of cupcakes and brownies and have recently introduced a range of dairy and gluten free brownies and are currently experimenting on perfecting a vegan variety. Their regulars look forward to finding out what the latest exciting flavour is. Having a weakness for anything rich and chocolaty I tried one of the dairy and gluten free brownies, it was superb!
The banter amongst the traders in this area was strong and engaging and there was a sense of street theatre, which was enhanced by Chris Makepeace of Mozzarellanation and his wood-fired pizza oven. Watching him throw the pizza dough around before adding the toppings was quite an attraction and his many customers speak highly of his product.
Maca and DJ’s Pie and Mash proudly display their Highly Commended certficate on their stall for their Steak and Ale Pie, awarded by the British Pie Awards in November. Although these aren’t traditional ‘pie and mash shop’ pies, they do offer ‘liquor’, as well as gravy and a range of handmade pies and pasties to choose from. Maca is clearly proud of his pies and could be heard promoting his wares to passing customers.
Quality is something that Weeping Chef and former Masterchef contestant, Alex Tomasso is proud of, having butchered his own meat for his range of luxury burgers. His patties are handmade and he also produces his own rubs and seasonings. One of his specialities is the brisket roll and I sampled the meat, which melted in the mouth.
Probably the most unusual food offering was that from Comida Brasil, who trade on both Wednesdays and Saturdays. Brazilian Cristina and Paul joined the market last September selling traditional, homemade Brazilian fare from Feijoada, a black bean and sausage stew to Vaca Atolada, spicy beef and cassava, as well as a selection of croquettes. I tasted their main courses and they were as good as I remembered from my time in the country. They commented, ‘this is a great market and the food area is really popular with workers.’ One customer confirmed this by telling me this was her ‘Wednesday treat’.
Steven, the manager of Yum Yum, has been selling his oriental food in markets including London’s Petticoat and Brick Lanes for twelve years and has built up a regular client base in the six months he has been at St Albans. They sell a range of chicken dishes, served with either rice or noodles.
Another popular and established food retailer is the authentic Lebanese shawarma and falafel stall. With the exception of the bread, everything is homemade and clearly displayed. As Brothers Adam and Ibrahim explained. ‘This is good healthy food, what you see is what you get.’
On the day I visited, one of the Farmer’s Market regulars, Feast was trading, also selling falafel and Shawarma wraps, along with bhajis, daal and cheese and spinach muffins.
Moving on to the main market, I wanted to meet some of the long-standing traders who have helped to make it the successful operation that it is today.
Pat The Fishman, as he likes to be known as, has been trading at St Albans for forty years and is the second generation in the family business. There are two stalls selling wet fish on the market, which are popular with customers, as like many towns and cities across the UK, with the exception of supermarkets, there is nowhere else to purchase it.
Julian Landsberg also has forty years of serving the people of St Albans, having started in January 1966 selling watches and batteries. He is the last in the line of the family business although his nephew, Richard, has his own business trading from Enfield.
Hosier Gary Elster has been trading on the market for 42 years and has expanded his range to colourful, patterned tights to appeal to a younger audience, whilst maintaining his traditional line of socks and hosiery. He said of St Albans, ‘I sell on other markets and this is one of the busiest.’
Men’s clothing retailer Steven Green has also had to adapt his offering over the last forty years. He explained how St Albans had changed from predominantly working class to middle class, which has made the market more of an attraction than a necessity. He added. ‘It’s great working here, I love my job, I wouldn’t do anything else, not even if I was offered a job paying more money.’
Sisters Marion and Christine, who own the card stall, love trading at the market and their customers clearly love them too as they voted for them to win a Star Award from the Chamber of Commerce in 2012. They proudly boasted, ‘we have seen off a number of card shops that have opened here!’
Fruit and veg is a staple of any market and as expected, there are a number on both Wednesdays and Saturdays. Peter Groomes and Sons has been at St Albans for twenty years and has seen many changes. He has introduced a small bowl section but he prefers the traditional weigh and pay method. He said, ‘we used to trade elsewhere but now we concentrate on here as this is the best market in the area. Darren is really trying hard to bring the market back to how it was.’
Tyler and Son’s fruit and vegetable stall is owned by Mark Tyler and has been in the family for over 60 years. Mark has also seen a lot of changes in the 42 years since he has been here; they used to sell poultry and eggs and recently introduced a ‘self service’ system with baskets, which seems to work well. He said, ‘you have to work harder at it these days. St Albans market has always been the best in the country, it’s the top of the tree.’
Steve and Darren are the only butchers, having started in 1980. They trade under the name Charlie O Brie, the former owner of the business for whom they used to work. Their meat predominantly comes from Smithfield and their reputation is such that they often get approached directly by wholesalers.
Forty years ago, wholefoods were often regarded as ‘hippie foods’ and are now much more commonplace in people’s diets. Eat Wholefoods is the new trading name for Sycamore Wholefoods, who began selling to the people of St Albans in the 1970s. It is owned by Patrick Jeavons who has been at the market for ten years. There is a vast array of pulses, grains, herbs, spices, dried fruit and nuts and herbal teas on offer and I used the opportunity to replenish my store cupboard. Patrick and his team are well informed and can offer advice regarding the health benefits of many products that they sell.
The banter between market traders, for me, is what brings these retail environments alive. There is a trio of traders, who sell alongside each other, that seemed to thrive on this. Pat Benjamin of Cook Spanish sells Spanish ceramic cookware and has been at St Albans for five years. Alongside him is ‘Big’ Martin Wilder who has a year on Pat and sells giftware although originally he started off in the cosmetics line. Last but no means least is Martin Kehoe, the longest standing of the group with nine years under his belt, selling ceramic coasters. Two years ago he introduced vintage style wooden crates.
I wanted to get a new trader perspective from someone other than within the food zone and Andy Lee was happy to talk to me. He reproduces his original artwork on linen shoppers, T shirts, posters and canvas. He joined the market in mid January and also trades at a neighbouring market and despite setting up business during the quietest months of the year, he commented, ‘trade is good, it’s much better here.’
St Albans market really does have something for everything, including things that you didn’t even know that you needed and Darren has worked hard to introduce new lines that also compliment the surrounding shops. The array of goods on offer may be vast, but they are always on the lookout for new and interesting products.
If you are interested in trading, whether it is on the Charter or one of the speciality markets, contact the Market Manager on firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: 01727 836781, Mobile: 07931 598367. Stalls, boards, canopies, electricity and services are all included within the stall hire fee.