Civic Trust Cymru promotes civic pride as a means to improving the quality of life for all in the places where we live and work, and encourages community action, good design, sustainable development and respect for the built environment amongst people of all ages.

The Demise of the Traditional Market Town

Heritage-led or Supermarket-led Regeneration?

Guest article by Edward Holland (

Abergavenny Cattle Market.jpeg Abergavenny Cattle Market post demolition.jpegAbergavenny Cattle Market before and after demolition © author

Historically, settlements evolved around a fortification or a place of worship.  The larger settlements then became market places where local people could trade and many became the focus for a network of communities.  From medieval times the market square, whether it be literally a square or not, became the secular focus of the town.  It is where people gathered, where business was done, where the life-blood of the town was felt.

Throughout Britain there are still many such examples (e.g. Kirkby Stephen, Malton, Kings Lynn, Retford, Ludlow and, in Wales, Haverfordwest, to name but a few).  Many of these towns are under threat from loss of local services due to local authority cutbacks, the growth of out of town shopping and the combination of parking charges and traffic congestion deterring visitors.  The vibrancy and vitality of these market towns is at risk.  Here in Wales, the Welsh Government’s Vibrant and Viable Places grant programme is welcomed and has assisted historic market towns such as Conwy and Holyhead but the funding is principally focused on housing rather than on sustaining the markets.  Current Welsh government policy directs funding towards areas of poverty.  The Fusion policy, as it is known, is born out of Baroness Andrews’s report in 2014 which identified how heritage and culture could positively support measures to reduce poverty.  It demonstrated that heritage and culture weren’t, as so often perceived, only for the benefit of the rich.

One example of where a market building hangs on looking for a new use is in Llandeilo. This is the former Provisions Market, built in 1838, and it has lain empty and at risk for many years. Although it is not on the main street it is central to the heritage of this market town and it could, with vision, be central to its future economic prosperity.  Indeed there have been ideas developed over the years for it to become a local food produce centre.  It may not be in a Communities First area but what a great way to regenerate an historic building and to add value to the market town by recreating a provisions market for local people to sell their produce.  The market building of the market town could once again be a driver for the local economy.  But it is feared a more commercially orientated development is more likely to happen.

Provisions Market, Llandeilo © author

The importance of the market place is often reflected in the plan form of towns – nowhere is this more evident than in somewhere like King’s Lynn with its enormous and elegant Tuesday Market Place and Saturday Market Place.  In Wales one example of a town where all roads lead to the market place is Dolgellau where Eldon Square is still lined by imposing local stone buildings.

Eldon Square Dolgellau.jpeg
Eldon Square, Dolgellau – historic photograph © Flickr

As well as food markets, there were town-centre livestock markets and on market days the whole rural community would come to town.  In the 21st century it is hard to see what in our towns has that regular magnetic draw and it questions whether the value of the market town has been diminished. People’s markets are now so often on-line or at the retail park in the nearest city not in their market square on their doorstep.

The ultimate expression of this is found in the United States where so many towns either never had a central focus or have simply lost it through poor planning control.  Here in the U.K. increased car ownership led to congestion in town centres and the resulting preference for out of town stores where people could park and shop with ease.  These out of town supermarkets have drawn much of the food-related trading out of the town centres resulting in a change in the type of retail available.  Some of the gaps get filled with charity shops and there is a slow erosion of the market town character.  There is a growing awareness of this and a will to encourage food shopping back into the town centres and former cattle market sites have offered areas for regeneration. But this article questions whether we are getting the best possible outcomes.

It is accepted that cattle markets have had to evolve in response to animal welfare requirements but the net result of this and the changes in shopping patterns, coupled with local authorities needing to create development opportunities, has led to too many cattle markets being closed and moved out of town.  Redevelopment of former cattle markets is too often carried out in such a way that leaves no memory of the former land use.  The historic character of this part of town is forgotten. For example, it is unlikely that many people using Morrisons in Denbigh or working in the Council offices next door are consciously aware that this is on the site of the former cattle market.  Similarly cattle markets have been lost in places such as Welshpool, Carmarthen and Abergavenny.  The latter is the most recent market to close and although preparatory work on building a new supermarket started at the end of 2014 there is still no sign of construction starting.  The town no longer enjoys the sounds and smells of sheep on Tuesdays and cattle on Fridays and no longer throngs with the farming community.  Just over the border the development of Hereford Cattle Market was completed in 2014, transforming that part of the city (before and after pictures below).

Hereford Cattle Market before.jpeg Hereford Cattle Market after.jpeg

The conclusion is that the importance of the market to the history and evolution of a town makes it of real heritage value and consequently its demise diminishes the character of market towns if no tangible memory of the market is kept.  More emphasis needs to be placed on the spirit of the place by adapting former market buildings to new retail or other purposes rather than carrying out total demolition and redevelopment.

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