Recession? What recession? Darlington is thriving
PUBLISHED: 15:56 09 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:02 20 February 2013
Andrew Smith discovers the secret of a town where the predicted demise of the high street appears grossly over-stated
The crisis threatening the future of the high streets of Britain holds no fears for the family that has sold fruit and vegetables from a market stall in Darlington for four generations.
While many town centres have become blighted by boarded up shops and a decline in visitors, this attractive market town enjoys almost full occupancy of its retail premises and a thriving indoor market where no stalls are unoccupied.
And prominent in the ornate Victorian market is the stall of JJ Blair and Sons, greengrocers for more than 140 years. The business was founded by Joseph Blair and is now run by his great grandsons Robin and Keith Blair and their wives, Alwyn and Olwen.
Robin said: We hear such a lot these days about peoples shopping habits changing and the high street being in decline. Well, our family has seen it all before and towns have been good at adapting to the changes over the years.
Darlington continues to attract shoppers into the town centre because of the variety of choice, from the main chain stores to small shops and market stalls like ours. Im confident towns such as this will adapt to meet whatever new challenges come their way.
With almost a century and half of survival and prosperity behind them, the Blair family can legitimately offer a perspective on what makes a town centre such as Darlingtons so successful.
When the indoor market was opened in 1864 it had open sides and combined a corn market and cattle market with general stalls.
The market was overseen by a manager whose first-floor office window, now bricked up but still discernable from ground-floor level, overlooked all the stalls and stock sales areas. Next to the window is the faint outline of a cross, which was the mounting bracket of the market bell.
Robin Blair takes up the story of its history. In those days, when my great grandfather ran a stall here, everything that was sold came straight off the land. You grew or reared the produce you brought to the market meat, dairy produce, fruit and vegetables.
Of course, there was no refrigeration in those days so produce that was perishable had to be sold off at the end of the day. Just as modern supermarkets used to sell off fresh produce cheaply in the evening, so in the old Victorian market the manager would ring the bell at 9pm every night to signal the start of the auction at which all meat was sold. The Victorians were as keen on a bargain as modern shoppers who look out for the discounts on produce that might only have a days shelf life.
The intimate appeal of an ancient market town extends outside Darlingtons Indoor Market to the compact network of streets, wynds and yards that form a town centre cluster about the size of a decent modern shopping mall but with much more interest and variety. Bespoke, specialist retailers exist side by side with the familiar multi-nationals, including M&S, Binns (House of Fraser), Next, Primark, HMV, Waterstones and most others.
One name not widely known outside Darlington but extremely popular with residents and regular visitors is H Taylor and Sons, The Noted Pie Shop. Situated on Skinnergate, this mostly open-fronted butchers shop has been serving quality meat and delicious pies since 1922. Like Blairs greengrocers it is still run by the founding family, with current proprietors Nigel, Paul and Stewart Taylor-Owthwaite at the helm. It is rare not to find a queue weaving out into the street from this traditional and much-cherished landmark business.
The town has quality cafes and inns scattered through the lanes, market square and the wide, uncluttered main shopping thoroughfares; pedestrian-only walkways were introduced in a major refurbishment a couple of years ago and friendly traders are working hard to preserve shopping as it used to be. Darlington offers a haven for those who believe in and wish to preserve the high street experience.
Robin Blair, standing proudly before his fruit, veg, flower, plant and garden sundries stall summed up the towns appeal when he said: Its a wonderful thing to prepare for the coming of the next generation. Theres enough room for everyone in a town centre like this. In our case, theres a lot more to a market than a sales floor. We offer both a retail and social experience. Elderly customers come here as much for a chat as for their shopping. And if they have any kind of complaint, the owners are behind the counter, not at the end of a phone or website.
Im 66 years of age and Ive been working on the stall since I was five. I love every day.
The history of Darlington as a market town can be traced back more than 1,000 years.
Records show it was an important trading location following the Norman Conquest and in the 16th century, the author and antiquary John Leland described Darlington as the best market town in the bisshoprick of Durham, outside of Durham city itself.
The eminent Quaker architect Alfred Waterhouse drew up plans for building the existing covered market in 1861 and work started in 1863, with the market opening the following year. At the time the market had open sides and it served both merchants and farmers. The pageant of its grand opening was somewhat tarnished when a cow fell through a weak floor into cellars below, suffering fatal injuries itself and also injuring several people.
The bells in the Market Clock Tower were cast by John Warner & Sons, who also cast the bells for Big Ben in London.
The indoor market now has 73 stalls and 18 peripheral shop units.
The print version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of North East Life
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