Norwich Market, having survived wars, plagues and recessions in over 900 years of trading from the same site, has reawakened once again after the coronavirus shutdown had closed all but a handful of stalls selling food and essential goods.
From early Monday morning, traders selling fruit and vegetables, vintage clothing and household items, rearranged their stalls, hoping to entice the shoppers slowly returning to the quiet city centre.
Council workers had hurriedly installed a one-way system in the market alleyways and laid floor stickers to encourage shoppers to keep 2 metres apart.
A steady trickle of customers were buying seasonal peonies and baby’s breath at Pond’s Flowers, next to Gentleman’s Walk, which has been run by Alexander Pond’s family for more than a century. “We’re starting on the bottom rung of the ladder, building it back up,” said Kevin Howes, who has worked on the stall with Pond for 25 years.
Only about a fifth of the 90 businesses that operate at the market, known for its distinctive candy-striped roofs, had raised their shutters on Monday morning. Many are waiting for high street stores to reopen later this month and for footfall to pick up in the city.
“I’m not sure how many traders will come back,” said Mark Wright, the chair of the market traders’ association and owner of Taxi Vintage Clothing, “I hear some have done well online.” Without his own online business, Wright was hoping his rail of floral Hawaiian shirts would catch a shopper’s eye so he could “break the ice” and make his first sale in 11 weeks.
Norwich city council granted traders a rent holiday during the shutdown but do not intend to cancel rent payments. “We will need to reexamine rents at the end of the summer,” said councillor Matthew Parker. “We are very stretched financially.”
Dale Barker had got off to a flying start – he was greeted at 8am by a customer eager for him to open his foam and upholstery supplies stall.
Barker was glad to return and, like some of his fellow traders, said a £10,000 small business grant from government had “kept the business afloat”.
From mid-morning, a pair of uniformed council enforcement officers patrolled the aisles to enforce physical distancing – even if the market wasn’t inundated with visitors – instead of their usual role handing out parking tickets. By lunchtime a well-spaced queue had formed at Ron’s Fish and Chips.
“People are slowly getting their confidence back,” said James Read as he handed a bunch of bananas over the trestle table separating him from his customers.
Nigel Simmeth had cycled 10 miles from nearby Wymondham for toast and coffee at Debs Champion’s stall. “It’s good to get some sort of normality back,” said Simmeth, 65. “Whatever normality is”.
Meanwhile Debs was chilling a bottle of prosecco in her fridge to toast the market’s return with her fellow traders at the end of the day.