22nd Oct, 2017

Historic market moves into 21st century

HISTORIC markets with wartime roots are embracing the 21st century.

Country markets across the West Midlands are coming together to form an online hub in a bid to draw in new crowds.

The weekly markets are part of a giant network across the country which originated from a sub-division of the Women’s Institute (W.I.) with the first one in Lewes, set up nearly a century ago in 1919.

WI Markets were started as outlets for leftover produce from members’ gardens and enabled families to supplement their incomes.

But pressure from wartime trading threatened the charitable name of the W.I and the markets simply became known as ‘Country Markets’.

The Bentley Heath market on Fridays has operated since 1974 and others have since sprouted up including Wythall and Hollywood, Dorridge and Allesley.

The very first one – held in a church hall – took £100.00. Chairperson Jill Erskine noted in 2002, the range of goods on offer differed little, it was just the scale of operation that was different.

And still today the co-operative continues to work as its forefathers did in the early days – as a community hub and a not-for-profit organisation promoting home-cooked, home-grown and home-made produce.

Joan Spriggs who was heavily involved in the Bentley Heath market during its beginning, said: “I am so pleased it continues to thrive. It provides not only quality home-produced goods but something not found in any supermarket. A real community service. I wish it all good fortune.”

And now the markets have moved into the digital realm thanks to a retail platform known as the Open Food Network UK (OFN) to promote sustainable and local businesses.

Users online can do their shopping virtually, then visit their nearest market to pick up their goods, bundled up and ready to go.

Budding businesses can also use the hub as a launchpad to sell their wares and experiment with product sales.

But new members should note, a fee of 5p – today’s equivalent of a shilling – is as compulsory today as it was back then.

Hub-coordinator Charlye Woolman, who has produced organic fruit and veg for the West Midlands markets for seven years, said:” We hope other people will become interested and help rejuvenate the markets which have dwindled over the recent years. It’s a good way to attract and educate new vendors and could act as a kind of nursery for new businesses. At the moment it’s hard to get producers to commit in same way as they used to.”

The 64 year-old grows organic fruit and veg from the garden of his Dorridge home – which he showcases as part of the Open Gardens charity scheme – while his wife Cecile creates a selection of jam, cakes and pies.

The dad-of-three – whose mother used to shop at the markets when they were linked to the WI – revealed her wartime’ Vinegar cake recipe was a popular seller on his wife’s stall.

The former teacher described the market’s culture of seed-swapping, the passing down of recipes and sharing of ingredients.

“I’ve got some runner beans which have been passed down through generations of cuttings, and a chocolate maker at the market uses my chillies in her recipes so they are not only homemade, but with home-grown ingredients.

“It’s the legacy of a 100 year-old social institution. You can meet and make friends, sit and treat yourself to coffee and a cake. It’s a really friendly and a pleasant atmosphere.”

And the markets do not stop at food. Along with Charlye, there are a variety of bakers, artists and crafters including a chocolatier, a wood-turner, herbalist and a even a pyrographer, offering home-made and personalised goods, from confectionery and greeting cards to jewellery boxes and hand stitched quilts.

Visit www.countrymarketshub.co.uk for more information.

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