The Market Square

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Market Square revamp

One of the amazing long-running sagas of Cambridge political life.

Labour's original plan in 1994-95 was for a 1.7M revamp, lasting at least a year. They planned to move the market long way away (to Cowley Road?) till it was realised the medieval market charter only authorises the Council to run markets up to 1.5 miles(?) from Great St Mary's Church. The next plan was to relocate to King's Parade. There was also a competition for a new centrepiece fountain, which produced a number of "modern" designs which were rightly ridiculed by the public.

What was (and still is) actually needed urgently was resurfacing, decent loos & storage for traders, and perhaps public loos. The 1901 loos were closed to the public in the early 80s: the Gents is now a seedy storage area for stallholders and the Ladies a barely-sanitary loo for them.

In 1996 the Labour-controlled Council announced it was going to make a start on refurbishment by raising 39,000, beginning with raising stallholders rents by 3%.

As of 2000 there's no sign of any improvement.

Trading conditions

These seem to be in long-term, slow decline, probably for a variety of reasons.

John Gray, chairman of the Market Traders Association, closed his greengrocer stall in 1996 due to poor business. He worked the stall for 30 years and it has been in the Gray family for 120 years. He moved on with "great sadness". For years he's been saying to the Council that transport and access for the area are apalling, with vehicles and bikes having little or no access. In particular no taxis are allowed during the hours of the traffic ban.

How can the Market (and the city centre shops generally) thrive with no bus services, no taxi services and no private vehicles (bikes or motors) allowed for most of the day?

The redesign of the St Andrews Street area (Feb.-July 1996) temporarily moved the nearest taxi rank even further from the Market, to Emmanuel Street, though it 's now in its proper position outside St Andrew's Church. As W.S. Nightingale said (CEN 26-Feb-1996), reopening Peas Hill access to the Market would solve the taxi problem.

Taxi drivers protested and managed to get the County Council to consider ranks in Emmanuel St., Peas Hill and the Grafton Centre, though without much success.

In 1997-98 taxi drivers opposed licences for trishaws, even though they weren't in direct competition: the trishaws were for areas like Peas Hill and King's Parade, taking tourists and local people for short trips around the historic centre, which taxis can't readily do. (After much hassle from City officials, acting against the will of politicians, Simon Lane had to take his business to London.)

Sunday market

Earlier in 1996 the City Council's Property Sub-Committee had plans for a Sunday market but they were kept secret - Chairman Coun. Ben Bradnack (Labour, Petersfield) used his casting vote to exclude the public. The Council had received a proposal from a private market operator for a speciality (arts & crafts) market. The Market Traders Association rejected this plan, wishing any Sunday development to be in-house, and this scheme came to nothing.

The Market traders feared any Sunday-only operator might not look after the facilities (such as they are) as well. They wanted a Sunday market run for 12 weeks in the Summer and the 4 weeks before Christmas though some stallholders were interested in Sunday operation all year round, rather than just the four Sundays before Christmas presently. Coun. Bradnack pointed out that an empty market is a turn-off for tourists.

The Council tried again, inviting bids and ideas and finally found a consensus between traders, Church and residents that the Sunday market should have a different character, with arts & crafts stalls, and start later, after church services. A final decision was due at the end of September 1996 but nothing was announced then.

In 1999 an Art, Craft and Antiques market was established and in August it was joined by a fortnightly Farmers' Market (11-4.30), in which farmers from up to 65 miles away sell their own produce. The media claimed the idea came from North America but it's exactly what town markets originally were for! In 2000 it started operating every Sunday.

A short history

The market probably moved here from the Roman settlement during Anglo-Saxon times.

A new Guildhall was built in 1386, following a major fire in the town. It was on arches with the area below being used to weigh goods and levy tolls. This lasted until being replaced by James Essex's design in 1782.

Throughout the middle ages the market was very different from its modern appearance. There were buildings attached to the east of Great St Mary's church, then Pump Lane (with public water pumps), then houses approximately in the middle of the modern market. The space for the actual market was essentially Peas Hill, the space in front of the Guildhall and the right-hand side of the modern market.

In 1849 a fire destroyed much of the market so the Corporation used the opportunity to clear the entire space. It obtained an Act of Parliament for purchasing the land and in 1855/6 moved the conduit head and erected a new central drinking fountain, creating the modern appearance. That fountain weathered so badly much of it had to be pulled down in 1953.


Demolish Guildhall?

In the 1990s the City Council has been floating ideas about renting out the ground floor as shops (some space now is) and/or releasing space for a second Crown Courtroom. They clearly feel there's no problem in relocating to other premises in the City. When there was a chance of the County Council being abolished, they were thinking of Shire Hall on Castle Hill.

The 1996/97 Mayor, John Durrant, considered offering space to the JobCentre and turning the ground floor into a shopping arcade. Space has become available as local Council offices have opened elsewhere in the City.

In 1997 the Crown Court announced it was moving from the Guildhall to part of the Mackays site on East Road.

This leads to the intriguing thought of demolishing the hideous 1936/7 Guildhall designed by C. Cowles Voysey, which has often been criticised - "the Albert Speer School of Architecture".

The Market Square would then be a very impressive sight, with a wide range of facilities around the edge and plenty of scope for diverse activities in the Square, including room to expand the market stalls if needed, for cafe tables and so on - all the activities which make continental squares so popular.

Unfortunately it's now reckoned by the Government to be of architectural interest, worth preserving, and is a Listed building.