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Feature

A Welsh market renaissance

07 Apr 2024 5 minute read
Newport market (Carwyn Graves)

Carwyn Graves

‘There’ll be nowhere else this busy in the city on a Thursday lunchtime,’ Jonathan explains with more than a hint of pride in his voice.

We’re standing in the entrance to Newport’s reopened indoor market, looking out into the food hall humming with throngs of people enjoying lunch together, picking up a coffee or catching up on the way through.

Newport Market’s new vitality does not seem to be a flash-in-the-pan, though; indoor markets the length and breadth of Wales are taking on a new lease of life.

Anchor points

Our indoor markets have long played an outsized role in Wales’ food culture and imagination, housing emblematic exemplars of everything from Swansea’s cockles and Cardiff Market’s fresh fish to beloved Welsh cake stands, sourdough pizza joints and greasy spoon cafes.

With almost two dozen of them stood proudly in town and city centres across the country from Mold to Llanelli, they hold a unique place in many of our main urban areas’ economic history.

Cardiff Market entrance (Carwyn Graves)

Many of our towns and cities grew up around their original weekly markets, which were important outlets in the Middle Ages for producers, artisans and farmers to sell their wares and goods.

Wherever possible, these were expanded to become daily affairs, housed under a roof to enable trading through wet Welsh winters – Llanidloes’ 400 year old market hall is still standing today.

By the time Wales experienced the industrial boom of the 1800s, many towns needed substantial halls to house all the traders and shoppers, with some of our most iconic markets (including Newport, Cardiff and Wrexham) dating from this period.

Pontypridd town market, to take one example, expanded multiple times from 1805 onwards, with the final extension to make it the largest in Wales and one of the most profitable in the UK happening in 1987.

Cardiff Bakestones (Carwyn Graves)

In many ways, these food-centred halls were the precursors to the supermarket, with everything you needed for a full food shop housed under one roof and open all week long.

Unlike supermarkets, they were housed in town centres, with most of the pound spend at stalls staying within the local economy.

Revitalized

This anchor role is confirmed as I wander Newport city centre to test Jonathan’s assertion and find that it does indeed bear out; there is nowhere that half matches the market’s bustle.

“It’s food that drives the footfall”, he explains, “and we’re finding that from Thursday to Sunday evening there’s a certain audience that wants meals out and a chance to socialize in a buzzy environment that’s (now) open till late – and then there’s families and older folk who appreciate the bright, open space during daytimes.”

The regeneration’s success is all the more notable given how quiet the market had become prior to closing for its multi-year revamp.

With few exceptions, the street food stalls and traders now based there are new and have taken a punt in the hope that the plan succeeds – which so far, seems more than justified.

But though a street food revolution has brought a shot in the arm to Newport city centre, a quieter evolution elsewhere is still seeing increased footfall and a renewed role to other town markets – with Pontypridd exemplifying this approach.

Bevans butchers (Carwyn Graves)

Here in the rebranded ‘food court’, Bevans’ Butchers proudly tells customers they’ve been trading in situ since 1918, and Theresa from the Welsh Cake shop tells me that it’s already marked 25 years’ since opening in that spot.

But a refresh to the buildings’ feel and signage in recent years has steadily increased footfall, with hardly a stall empty in the sprawling building.

“It is better for us to be inside,” Theresa explains, “because it isn’t just the fact of being right here with all the other food traders – there’s also water, rates and so on that keeps our margins healthier than if we were out on the high street.”

Some businesses do outgrow the market and move out to bigger premises when ready – and that just allows others the chance to get a foothold.

As I wander back out of Ponty market, Welshcakes in hand, I note with interest the prices on everything from fresh loaves to half a dozen apple and compare these with my local supermarket the next morning.

Interestingly, the market wins on most products hands-down. It seems that food trendiness and the honeypot effect can, through markets, be combined with fresh veg and local meat kept at accessible prices.

With Caerphilly’s brand new ‘Ffos’ market opening after Easter and Wrexham’s Butcher’s Market renovation ongoing, it feels like these old institutions may have an important role to play for years to come yet.

This is part of a monthly series on Nation.Cymru on the diversity of Welsh food culture by Carwyn Graves. You can read the other installments of the series here.


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adrian savill
adrian savill
1 month ago

Newyddion da

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 month ago

Good to hear about the ‘Butcher’s Market’ in Wrecsam…

Ian Hunter
Ian Hunter
1 month ago

Cardiff’s indoor market epitomised the world in the forties and fifties for me. It was magical, full of rare and exotic foods (cheese and bananas!) Upstairs, as far as I was concerned, was a glorious zoo, . My younger brother and I would peer in every cage along the balconied stalls; guinea pigs, budgies, finches, goldfish. Only when we were torn away by parents who had filled bags with post-war goodies, would we reluctantly leave – inhaling the fishy odours at the Hayes entrance – another cornucopia of unknown sea creatures.Oh, that the wiser youngsters of today are able see… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Hunter

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