The Lyme Maze Game

Daedalus escapes the maze


Universal Workshop



You're lucky: it's Thursday—market day in Axminster.

The stalls are crammed into the town's "Square", actually a triangular space. Every Thursday we ride (Tilly by bus, I by bicycle) the five miles over the hills from Lyme to buy as much as we can of the week's provisions at Axminster market. There is the fruit and vegetable stall, essential to any market; a cake and bread stall; fishmonger; butcher; spices; cheeses from France; kitchenware; plants; books; music; varicoloured woollen goods; china; toys for dogs; gloves; plants; cards; crossword puzzles; walking sticks; hot breakfasts; a stall with an enormous spread of small hardware and electronics; the Eco Stall, selling a variety of life-friendly products.

The cake man has a stentorian voice; the vegetables are dispensed by a sassy family good at banter with the customers; the nut-seller comes from Iran. Some of the stallholders get up at three in the morning to begin the toil of hauling their goods to the town, and then setting up their marquees and tables and laying out their wares, which can take three hours. (So on mornings of dubious weather it's a toss-up whether to go to the trouble.) They work the circuit of the town markets: one of them will tell you "I'm at Honiton market on Tuesday, then Axminster on Thursday, Yeovil on Friday and Taunton on Saturday. And Seaton on Monday, but only in the summer—it starts at Easter." The vegetable people work every day of the week: Thursday, Axminster; Friday, Totnes; Saturday, Wareham; Sunday, Exeter and, far in the opposite direction, Wimborne; Monday (in season), Charmouth; Tuesday, Swanage; Wednesday, Dorchester. But not Bridport—why?—there's a custom (Bridport only?) that if a stallholder is there even as little as one week out of six you don't compete with them. Bridport has two market days, Wednesday and Saturday; Honiton also has two, Tuesday and Saturday. Those two places are ten or twelve miles away to east and west, showing the kind of distance between same-day markets—towns far enough apart not to compete with each other—the cell-width of the network. Cities such as Yeovil have larger markets; Taunton's is not a street market but the less picturesque kind held in hangar-like market buildings. "Honiton has gone down in the last few years, but Bridport's become one of the best." By comparison Axminster's market, concentrated into its triangle around the memorial to Queen Victoria's 1887 Jubilee, is small. Yet it is one of the most ancient, chartered by King John eight hundred years ago; the only other with a royal charter is London's!

This wonderful market culture is centuries old. Markets grew to be seven days apart, the time for fresh produce to keep and the time busy farmers could afford for transporting it—markets are probably the origin of the week. They were also, in their heyday, as little as seven miles apart; in fact there had to be legislation stopping them from being closer. The local cycles mesh into a web that spreads not only across these corners of three southwestern counties but all over England, and beyond. When I was walking around the Moroccan countryside, I found that just by knowing the names of the villages—names that mean Sunday Market of Sidi Mohammed, Monday Market of the Zemamra Clan, Tuesday Market of the Gate of the Eye, Wednesday Market in the West—you can be at a weekly market every day.

Axminster market is so lively that you're shocked to hear one of the stallholders say it's "dead" these days. In the past, it used to stretch back farther along the narrow street at the rear, and even blocked up the main street. As with many little shops, it's been "killed" by Tesco. Never buy anything from the supermarket (that mass-murderer of small independent enterprises) that you could get at a private shop or at the real, the traditional market!

My bicycle is being loaded with groceries like a donkey. One of the marketmen says: "Is there going to be room for you on it?"

Well, having made your purchases (and we hope you have your string bag to put them in, so as not to waste plastic), you think about heading back from Axminster toward Lyme. On the other side of the street, which is lined by the Trinity House department store, buses of various destinations draw up, but one of the people who stand waiting for them informs you that the hourly Number 31 for Lyme has just gone.

Too bad, but you could pass the time till the next one by taking lunch, and your considerate informant tells you that there's a restaurant on the upper floor of Trinity House, so you go in (as we often do after our market shopping).

Or (your informant also informs you) there's a train station at Axminster, and maybe you could get back more quickly that way. In that case, turn right on coming out of the store and head along West Street.

Or maybe (being fit, and on holiday, and willing to see the intimacies of the Devon and Dorset countryside) you just set out, without waiting for bus or trusting to train. There are rather numerous ways out of Axminster's middle; all of them are among the routes between which I choose on my weekly rides back from the market.

The main street running past the market is jammed, especially on market days, with a mixture of vehicles and pedestrians almost as comical as a city street in India. You can head back along it to the east (the route that brought you here). Or turn the opposite leftward along the street. Or pick your way back through the crowds among the market stalls to go out at the market's rear.