Exclusive content from: POSTCARD from BATH Magazine.
The jolly atmosphere of a good Christmas market certainly brings on a warm festive feeling. Bath’s very own event not only adds seasonal cheer but a huge boost to the city’s economy and visitor popularity.
Simon Horsford meets the folk who make the market. Images by Paolo Ferla
“The Romans and Georgians created a stage for us and all we do is add the actors and scenery,” is how Mick Heath, Visit Bath’s Head of Events, describes the city’s Christmas Market, which will be back this November for the 18th consecutive year.
It’s certainly a spectacularly festive affair with the abbey and the Roman Baths providing a magnificent backdrop. Several cities in Britain may have Christmas markets, but few have such fabulous surroundings, which, in part, explains why more than 400,000 visitors are drawn here for the market each year.
It’s a long way from the inaugural year in 2001 when the market was conceived by Bath council’s ‘shopping centre co-ordinator’ Dave Dixon as a ‘celebration of Bath’ for local residents, a showcase for local traders and, slightly more left field, as a way of marking the 50th anniversary of Bath’s twinning arrangement with the German town of Braunschweig. There were 40 stalls running for just four days.
In many ways, though, the Christmas event reflects the tradition of a flourishing market centred around the abbey that dates back to when King Richard I granted its first market charter in 1189; Cheap Street takes its name from the old English word for a market. As you move around the throngs of people at Christmas maybe you’ll get a hint of the atmosphere of old Bath before the market moved into the Georgian-built Guildhall in the late 1700s.
But what of today? From its initial, humble beginnings, Bath Christmas Market was later taken over from the council by Visit Bath and in turn its smooth running has been overseen by Heath, as the event coordinator, for the past five years. There were a whopping 206 stalls last year and the market ran for 18 days with its presence extending around the city; figures suggest it generated around £35 million with the market itself making around £16 million. Stall holders pay between £2,000–£3,000 depending on their location within the market. This year (and next) with the Footprint Project underway around the abbey, the market will instead extend away from Orange Grove to Milsom Street, Union Street and Hot Bath Street. The works do mean the number of stalls will be reduced to 168.
Whatever the setting though, it is the sellers that make Bath Christmas Market, says Heath. Virtually all – invariably around 80 per cent – come from the south west or Wales and 95 per cent of the products are either handmade by the artisan sellers, or made with handmade fair trade certificates, if they have come from abroad.
From clothing and accessories to food and drink, plus health and beauty, the organisers try to ensure that the combination of stalls is just right. “We do get an awful lot of the same thing,” says Heath, “so we break it up into categories. In the end there is a kind of natural selection.” Here you will find everything from aromatherapy remedies and honey handcare products to jewellery, jumpers, cheese, jam, chutney, chocolate, gin, cider and tasty local liqueurs. And yes, of course, the infamous wooden ties.
One of the longest serving chalet holders is the Snowdonia Cheese Company, which has been there for around 10 years. Another is Georgie Porgie’s Puddings, who make Christmas puddings. Owner George Hollywood says: “We are a small artisan team, handcrafting in excess of 100,000 steamed puddings a year in Devon. The market’s ideology and flare for showcasing similar products makes it a perfect fit for us.” This year they started making the puddings on 8 January. It seems Christmas comes early for some.
What also makes the market special is the look of the stalls. “We ask stallholders to use LED white lights and not flashing or coloured ones, and there are no sound systems,” says Heath. “The attraction is that it isn’t commercialised either. Many stallholders spend a couple of days decorating them and there is a design competition among them with a prize for the winner.”
The theme for 2018 is sustainability and recycling. Priormade, for instance, makes jewellery from reclaimed material such as inner tubes from bikes and wood from old church pews. In Queen Square, where there is an artisan market allied to the Christmas Market, Simon Webb sells pencils he has fashioned from fallen trees, and children from locals schools will also be making decorations from plastic bottles which will hang around the market. Last year they made lanterns.
The market is not just about the stalls though. Aside from the artisan market, there’s music from the Norland College Choir and Bath Spa Band, together with wandering Dickensian characters, storytelling, a children’s parade, present-wrapping, an ice cave and a moveable piano encouraging sing-songs around the city. Elsewhere you will find crazy golf and the ice rink, and after the festival finishes there’s the carousel on Stall Street.
Another attraction is that Bath doesn’t try and copy the format of the great German markets. It is very much its own thing – and quintessentially British. “We do have a guy selling bratwurst but he normally trades from Green Park,” says Heath with a smile.
Logistically the market is quite an operation. The chalets themselves are stored in a warehouse until they are needed each year. They are delicate structures and not really designed to be put up and taken down all the time, so the lifespan of the huts is, usually about five years’ use. As for security, this has become something of an issue in recent years. “We as event organisers,” says Heath, “have a responsibility to look after our own security and we hire our own security team. We don’t want to be alarmist but with any heightened risk we have to think about what we do and keep the public safe. Last year we placed concrete bollards as safety barriers and at least tried to make them look like Bath stone.”
For Heath, the essence of Bath’s Christmas Market is to encourage a family get-together where everything is free. “Christmas isn’t a great time for everybody,” he says, “but if we can bring some festive cheer then that’s our goal. And the only time you spend money is if you choose to buy something from the stalls.” And long may it run.
The Bath Christmas Market will run from 22 November – 9 December throughout the city centre.
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