Have you ever been to a country market? If the answer’s no, you’ve missed a treat. We are living in Devon at the moment, and on Easter Saturday there was a big market in Hatherleigh, which is our nearest town.
Hatherleigh is no stranger to markets. It’s been having them since 1220, and at the moment there are four a week – a sheep market on Mondays, a general market on Tuesdays, a cattle market on Thursdays and a car boot sale on Sundays. Not needing any sheep or cattle – and not even a car boot, come to that – we go to Tuesday’s general market. It is a bustling, untidy and friendly affair, where you can buy a weird and wonderful assortment of things, from cheap packs of chocolate to jars of homemade jam, from old galvanised buckets to balls of wool, and from purple sprouting broccoli to pains au raisin. There is pretty much something for everyone, including things that you didn’t know you wanted and, I must admit, some things that you already pretty sure that you’ll never want. Some of the stallholders earn part of their living from the Hatherleigh market, including the baker who drives up from Tavistock with his van full of delicious, real bread. People – both shoppers and traders – come from miles around to that Tuesday market. It’s partly a social event and partly a shopping expedition. There was even a snow white gander walking around it last Tuesday. He looked very confident as he strode about, going up to stalls and giving them the once-over. How do I know he was a gander? It was easy. He was wearing a pale blue bow tie.
On Easter Saturday, the well-dressed gander was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he’d spent all his money on Tuesday. Instead, there was a toffee-coloured goat called Herbie, who stood patiently if rather hesitantly while people stroked him. He was gazing into the middle distance, possibly searching out straw hats that might serve as a light mid-morning snack.
It’s anyone’s guess how many people came to the market on Saturday but it felt like half of Devon and a dollop of Cornwall. The car park, which has space for hundreds of cars, was full by eleven o’clock and had been closed to newcomers. The sun shone, people laughed and chatted, children jumped up and down on the bouncy castle, the Hatherleigh Ukulele Bashers strummed away, and the food hall offered irresistible temptations. We bought bread and cheese for lunch, chocolates made from goats’ milk and bottles of Somerset cider, and then we walked home, up the narrow street with its old cottages that are crammed hugger-mugger and the two cats that are always asleep on a sunny windowsill, cresting the hill and then down into the wider country lane, its grass verges studded with primroses and tiny violets. We peered into the ditches where, two weeks ago, we’d seen hundreds of tiny tadpoles. They had vanished by Saturday, and so had the water they’d been swimming in. Had they survived, we wondered, or had the lack of rain killed them off?
Something else that is in danger of being killed off is the Hatherleigh market. The land on which it stands is being sold and the council agreed unanimously that the sale should go ahead, allegedly in the name of progress. The exact nature of this so-called progress is debatable.
Part of the car park is going to be turned into a housing development and another part of it will be given over to a supermarket. (Which will be Hatherleigh’s second supermarket. And it’s not a big town.) What is left of the parking space will apparently be available for the people coming to the markets. But will anyone come? The streets of Hatherleigh are narrow and twisting at the best of times, a legacy of its medieval origins, and they are always clogged on market day because even now there isn’t enough space in the car park so cars overflow into the neighbouring streets. If there isn’t anywhere to park, the market will die and 800 years of tradition will go with it.
If you recounted this tale to Eeyore, happening to catch him post-lunch in the Hundred Acre Wood, he would soon tell you how the story will end. And no doubt the well-dressed gander, and Herbie the goat, would agree with him.