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Postcard from Swansea Market

20 Feb 2024 6 minute read
Swansea Market Hall 2 by ahisgett is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sarah Morgan Jones

At the heart of a somewhat beleaguered city centre stands a jewel which has survived the worst of Swansea’s fortunes and continues to thrive.

Between the stall selling all things Welsh and the legendary cockle and laverbread stalls stands Cafe Janet, all sparkly bistro tables beneath a silk wisteria draped pergola.

At one table a large shiny headed man in an overall and white apron sits in front of a plate full of poached eggs on toast. Four pieces of toast, five or six eggs. They look delicious.

As he surveys his breakfast with a Dan Dare air, his head jerking away to the incongruous dance music coming from a nearby stall, he looks like a man who has already put in a half day and it’s only 9.15am.

He lifts a piece of toast and retrieves several pieces of bacon, thick, lean and well done and shifts them to a side plate, before starting to burst his eggs.

I am sold. I approach who I imagine to be Janet and ask for said poached eggs on toast. They arrive shortly afterwards, a modest two on a chunky piece of toasted white bread, smothered in decent butter, and they are poached to near perfection.

The dish of the day around me appears to be ‘eggs benny’ – and very appetising it looks too – poached eggs with spinach and hollandaise sauce.

Bustling

Around me, the soundscape is bustling. Conversations in Welsh and English, competing music and laughter. My nose is drawn in all directions, fresh and earthy, sizzling smells, coffee and the sea itself.

From my seat I can see the Falafel Stall which offers great salads and wraps along with their well textured, tasty main feature, Hugh Phillips butcher, home of salt marsh lamb, big fat chickens, marbled steaks and all manner of sausages, a card shop, one of the three fish mongers, two bakeries, a traditional sweet shop, Abraham’s family bacon stall, a beauty parlour, a sewing shop, an antiques emporium and a Timpsons.

To get here I have ambled past the veg post at the Oxford Street entrance, past the pet and silk flowers stalls, past the cafe selling roast dinners in a Yorkshire pudding wrap, past the electrical shop, the jewellers, another bakery, the vegan shop, Billy Upton’s butcher… and that’s all in the northeast corner of the legendary Swansea Market.

Head southwest towards the Union Street entrance and there are two more fish mongers, another butcher, a Thai takeaway, a donut cafe, several glorious fruit and veg suppliers, a man selling soup in bread bowls, some new agey places, a plant stall… you get the idea.

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Reborn

This place, the site of market trading for nearly 200 years, rebuilt and reborn after the blitz of 1941, remains a constant in a city centre which has seen much better days, a city which has been remodelled far more times than is healthy, a once prosperous place which never quite recovered its grand identity after it was bombed flat by the Luftwaffe during the war.

Today Swansea centre is grasping at life, full of student flats, empty shop fronts where once high street greats threw open their doors.

The latest remodel seems successful enough and more work continues, but the city seems to rattle as it breathes. It’s not vibrant anymore.

Within the market walls though, some stalls may have changed over the years, some have been there since its post war rebuild in 1961, some even having traded there for far, far longer.

Cockles and laverbread at Swansea Market, image by Sarah Morgan Jones

Gower gold

Most iconic in many ways are the cockle stalls. In my house, passing them without a purchase would be grounds for divorce, even though they are definitely not for me.

Run by the Watts family, the stalls display the nuggets of Gower gold, picked daily from the north of the peninsula, and transported the 8 miles into town since forever.

Women, famed for their wool skirts and cockle hats, would walk barefoot so far, before slipping on their shoes to complete the journey, leading donkeys laden with the day’s harvest, freshly picked, washed and shelled.

When the first market opened in Swansea, it was down near the castle, pillared and open-walled beneath a roof. The be-flannelled women would cook their meals at the stalls, sustaining themselves and their families during the long trading hours.

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It moved to its current site in 1830, a new hall with a clock tower at the centre.

Following a fire in 1876, it was rebuilt once more between 1895 and 1897, with grand Ruabon brick facades surrounding it, a site impossible to ignore.

Eventually covered over completely, with taverns and breweries on the south side and pillars and archways to the north, its social and economic status in the town was consistent and evident over the decades.

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Blitz

Between 19 and 21 February 1941, acres of Swansea town centre, the market included, were flattened during the three-day blitz.

The grand Georgian Kingsway, the land to the south approaching the docks and swathes of people’s homes further up Mount Pleasant and into Townhill were destroyed in the devastating attack.

231 people were killed during those three nights and 397 were injured and arguably the beauty of Swansea centre was lost.

It would take years to recover from the destruction, and as modern buildings grew up around the Kingsway, the market, considered a low priority, continued to trade in the open air.

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Finally, the structure I now sit in came into being in 1961. A remarkable 59 metre spanned roof in glass and aluminium, supported on concrete pillars, with the light and acoustics of a cathedral, was designed by Welsh architect, Sir Percy Thomas.

More recently it has acquired a second aluminium skin to protect customers and trader from the extremes of the temperatures, and facilities, entrances and the interiors continue to be revamped, and just last month it once again collected the crown for the UK’s best large indoor market.

I pick up some cockles, and pause to buy an enormous Gower cauli, some leeks and some rainbow carrots, put in an order for a sack of spuds to be delivered…

Now, I am hungry again… the eggs only filled a small hole.

As I wander down through the market hall, slotted between a sewing and alterations business and a coffee shop in a space which used to be a record shop, I am sure, is the home of the Bowla – a family business baking bowls of bread and filling them with delicious cawl or curry or even something sweet.

Well, it’d be rude not to.


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Nia James
Nia James
1 month ago

A good article about a wonderful place. The Swansea poet David Hughes wrote a fine poem about it a few years ago: Swansea Market Poem by David Hughes (youtube.com)

Ali Morris
Ali Morris
1 month ago

A great, well written article, capturing all the vibrancy of the (almost) only decent thing left in Swansea city centre.

Mary Hayman
Mary Hayman
1 month ago

A really good article! I also love Swansea Market. Did a project for Glynn Vivian Art Gallery about its history and have made on the spot watercolour sketches of 100 people who work there. Really enjoyed getting to know stallholders and other staff and fellow shoppers. Also, no problem finding tasty food!

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