The Lyme Maze Game

Daedalus escapes the maze


Universal Workshop



More on Axminster market. It used to be in a different part of the town, an opening still called Market Square, in the middle of the triangle of the main street, Castle Street, and Castle Hill. And there is a separate cattle market beside South Street.

The market has been in the hands of the same owning family for more than a century. To the owner the stallholders pay a rent of ten pounds, or five pounds in winter (January to March). It's the same irrespective of the size or position of the stall, and some days it's more than the day's takings. The owner has no real overheads, but has to pay a small yearly consideration to the church, which owns the ground on which some of the stalls stand. The Axminster rents are reasonable compared with those in some larger markets, where charges are made per square foot. The music-seller says: "At some of them, with these three tables in a row, I could be paying eighty pounds."

Steve Hibbs, whose Eco Stall is at the front and is the first to greet walkers coming along the street, says: "I couldn't survive if I was at the back" - his wares aren't ones that people come seeking, they have to be noticed. He sells reading glasses, foreign postage stamps, watch batteries, torches that don't need batteries, solar products, protection of your brain against damage from your cell phone, and Ecoflow, Bioflow, Motoflow, Vitaflow, H2Flow - belts and wristbands and anklebands containing magnets that cure arthritis (or your money back), small "magneto-dynamic" devices that by merely being clamped on the outside of your gas or water pipes save you up to twenty percent in costs. Steve may venture into wind-power too, and was interested by the string bags we carry (because they roll up small but expand to carry an amazing amount, and being reusable save plastic): he was already thinking of getting them made from natural twine by ropemakers in India.

But times are hard for the personable street-market system. "People come by and look at these products and ask questions," says Steve, "and then they say 'Thank you, I'll go home and order it on the Internet.' The Internet can cut prices because it doesn't have to have shop fronts or carry things here at three in the morning. And not so many people even come into town and walk about. They sit at home and browse the Internet."

"I'm at five markets a week," says one of the stallholders. "I live at Bridport, and I've never missed there, not once, except at Christmas. People said to me: 'Where were you?'—they expect us even then!" People need the market; it seems as if the use of the public space should be free. (Under the terms of the charter, anyone can set up stalls free on Sunday; but they don't, because it's a day of rest, and no one would come. But the Petticoat Lane market in London is fully active only on Sunday, reduced to one short street on the other days.)

It turns out that the man with the small-hardware stall, who told me he goes to the Monday Seaton summer market, actually ran that market; now he has closed it (because the space was narrowed by the building of a row of holiday apartments) and he goes to the Monday summer market in Charmouth instead. The seller of country-and-western music has an unusually wide range (of travel, that is): he goes in winter on Wednesday to Frome in north Somerset, Thursday to Axminster, Friday to Chippenham in Wiltshire, Saturday all the way to Newbury in Berkshire, Sunday to Highbridge in Somerset, and takes Monday and Tuesday off; in summer to the same places on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, but on Tuesday to Minehead in Somerset and Wednesday to Bideford in north Devon. The man selling halogen heaters only comes in winter; in summer he goes to tourist resorts all over England.

In Devizes the market fills the triangular heart of the town on Thursday, but a main street to the north is called Monday Market Street. Salisbury has a great street market, and Wilton nearby has four annual sheep fairs. The Latin part of the name of Blandford Forum in upper Dorset means that, as opposed to its sister village of Blandford St. Mary, it was the place with the market. At some markets, such as St. Alban's in Hertfordshire, you can see Chaucerian characters orating on the virtues of a stove cleaner or headache cure to a mesmerized audience. Some towns, such as Cambridge, have their market every day of the week. Lyme, alas, though it possesses a market charter, now stages no market; it's no longer that kind of town.

Almost the only inscription found by archaeologists in the remains of Roman Dorchester is a fragment of tile bearing the letters NVND. Probably this was the beginning of the word Nundinae, the Roman vegetable market held each ninth day, and the tile was part of a market building.

The trading system used to consist of markets and fairs. A fair was annual, and some of the oldest were on moors and hilltops, beside an old barrow or a meeting of drovers' roads. The government tried to exert control by issuing laws (often ignored), such as that fairs not be held on Good Friday, or on any Sunday except the four at harvest time. A "regrator" or "forestaller" was someone who broke the rule against buying goods on the way to market so as to sell them there at a profit. Disputes about prices and weights were judged by the Pie Powder Court (from pieds poudreux, "dusty feet"), sitting in a building called the tolbooth or tolsey.

What can you not get in the market?—very little; maybe the Philosopher's Stone, the Holy Grail, the elixir of life. Why, here's a stall that sells magic carpets!—buy one, and it translates you instantly into the middle of another market on another day