We’re on Market Street, in the car park. And yes, there’s a market here on Tuesdays. Truth be told there’s not much of a market these days. Since Christmas only a hardy two of three stalls have turned up. The fishmonger’s van, the fruit and veg guys. Sometimes there’s a clothing stall, sometimes not. It depends on the weather. Up until Christmas there was a cheese stall, as regular as you like. Good local stuff and homemade chutneys and piccalilli, bottled in re-used jam jars like it should be. I’ve not seen the cheese fella since then. Truth be told, I worry. He wasn’t youthful.
In the summer it perks up. There’s usually one of those stalls that sells a little bit of everything. Batteries and socks and pet chews. Other clothes stalls; everything from voluminous nighties to neon puffa jackets. A bakery stall that does reasonable cakes. For a few weeks you get pop-up wannabes after that tourist dollar. Fudge merchants. Little pockets of flavoured toffees for four pounds a go. Easy money if boiling sugar’s your thing.
The market takes up the left hand side of the car park as you pull in. Just the first row or so of parking spaces. Even though there’s signs in two languages reminding/warning folk of the market, invariably the run of stalls is interrupted by a hatchback left overnight.
When it’s up and running, the market operates from about eight to not long after one. It’s a morning market. The fishmonger packs up first; late morning. They do genuine good business. They’re the main draw. Between Easter and October half-term the market is an attraction for day-trippers. The right-hand half of the car park is for coaches and buses, and so there’s plenty of interest to be had from those stretching their legs.
It’s a big car park. The town’s largest, not counting the newer one across at the Aldi, and about the most central. About three acres. A acre is a square seventy yards on each side, more or less, or just about the size of a rugby or football field. If you want to get a sense about how the town’s doing on any given day, a glance over the car park will tell you.
Before I sat here there was a couple. Middle-aged to elderly. Two glasses, both with beer. The car park doesn’t have one of those height restriction barriers because of the coaches that rock up, so the crafty and cost-conscious tourer can park up their caravanette overnight here for more-or-less free. That’s what this couple were doing; enjoying an afternoon ale in the car park, without having the fuss and bother of those pub prices. Fair play to them. A glass makes street drinking that little bit more sophisticated.
The town’s public toilets are to the side. Staffed all day – until five in the winter, six in the summer season – and there’s coin-operated and RADAR key options for out of hours. Head honcho at the loos is Dale. He keeps the place clean, takes the 30p entrance money, and maintains a constant running commentary of the comings and goings on Market Street. He’s usually by the pavement barriers, rolling a cigarette and saying his hellos. He likes to wave to traffic, does Dale. The nearest thing the place has to a mascot. Quite possibly a trickster God or Llangollen’s version of the ravens at the Tower of London. If Dale’s not there, then something’s awry. Or he’s on his lunch, putting a bet on.
You can cut across the car park, and you’ll come out onto Berwyn Street. The A5. Take a diagonal right from the bench, and there’s cluster of charity and recycling bins for clothes and whatnot. That side of things is where the hot hatches park up after dark. Just two or three, and only every now and again. Dope smoke and McDonalds from the 24 hour one at Chirk. Harmless enough.
You can see the backs of a few shops too. Plus one of the entrances to the town’s vets. If you’re nippy you can cut straight through the surgery waiting area and come out by the sorting office.
This area used to be known as Smithfield; there’s a side-street named Greenfield opposite, cutting from Market Street downhill to the police station on Parade Street. In addition, what’s now the M’Eating Point cafe on Berwyn Street was formerly the Smithfield Hotel. Little remembrances. Smithfield is a corruption of the Saxon for “smooth field”, presumably a flattish bit of land usefully-located for gatherings for beast markets and associated trades, like smithying.
There were weekly cattle and sheep markets, and the land could be hired for circuses, freak shows and other travelling attractions. There’s a bit of a fair sometimes; one to accompany the Christmas lights switch-on, and one in the summer. Stallholders have had the right to trade here since 1284. There’s a charter in existence from that year from Edward I, allowing two fairs to be held annually plus a weekly Tuesday market. Something to think about when you sit here and watch the small queue at the blue Transit selling fish. That there’s exercising of a right that’s been protected for over 700 years going on right there in front of you.
The granting of such a charter was something of a double-edged sword. While on the one hand it confirmed the right to trade and offered certain protections to the community in having that right – and therefore also attracting custom and business – it also warranted the right for the relevant authorities to extract a levy for providing such services. These days that’s done by Denbighshire County Council. The rules are pretty simple, as their website explains: “To trade at Llangollen market, come along to the market on the morning of the day you want to trade. You should aim to arrive around 8 am. There is a charge of £9.60 per stall.”
According to a local history book I peeked into – An Illustrated History of Llangollen, by Gordon Sherratt – the local council tried to ban the market in the late 1960s to ensure week-round parking availability. Protests magicked up the charter and the issue went away. Maybe the market was bigger then. It certainly can’t have been much smaller.
These days it’s a flat expanse of tarmac studded with vehicles. Busy when it’s sunny, sparse when the rain sets in. It’s quiet enough, though, to listen out for some echo of the past. A flavour of what it was like is given by Sherratt, who notes that a local schoolmaster in 1865 made the following complaint of fairground activity here:
“The electrogalvanic batteries, photographic studios, whirligigs and swings were innocent enough but most of the shows, tumbling, boxing, gambling etc were to be condemned. Many of the stereoscopic views were decidedly indecent … there is a vulgarity, a want of mental elevation in such practices which might induce an intelligent man to reprobate them even if the voices of morality and religion were silent.”
Think on, car parkers. Think on.