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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

08 September 2023

Malcolm Guite celebrates the continuity of the marketplace — and the church that it sits alongside

THURSDAY is market day in North Walsham, and, although the market is not what it once was, it is still vibrant enough to draw people in both from the town and, sometimes, the surrounding villages.

Sauntering through to buy our fruit and veg, I notice that people seem much more relaxed and ready to chat with one another than they do in the supermarkets. There, they tend to clench the trolley and power through, and, when they meet with a long queue at a checkout, there is impatience at the smallest delay. You can almost hear the grinding of teeth if someone’s card fails to go through, or if, as is often the case, an elderly person spends a long time fumbling in their purse for their loyalty card and coupons.

By contrast, people seem to relish conversation on market day, and those of us waiting our turn at the fruit stall all enjoy and join in the banter between the stallholder and the person at the head of the queue.

I sometimes wonder what makes for that difference. Is it expectation? Do people expect and allow for a slower shop on market day, and, having allowed for it, are they able to enjoy it? Or is it a local culture, a kind of collective memory?

The town has held a weekly market since it was granted the right to do so by Henry III in 1275. The medieval market was celebrated not simply for the meat, livestock, grain, and other produce, which any other market town might boast, but because of the wool, and the famous “Walsham” cloth that you could buy there. The neighbouring village of Worsted specialised in a heavier weave, and still gives its name to worsted cloth, but North Walsham was famous for a lighter weave, known as Walsham, in contrast to Worsted, but sadly that name never stuck.

For many centuries, the whole secular life of the community turned and depended on market day, much as its spiritual life turned and depended on the Sundays and saints days kept at St Nicholas’s, the parish church. Indeed, the sacred and secular were cheek by jowl; for the early market stalls all ran parallel to the north side of the church.

The market is smaller now, the livestock and the old shambles replaced by a local butcher’s and stalls that bring in traditionally reared and organic meats. The distant inheritor of those famous wool and cloth stalls, once run by the many families of weavers who made up the majority of the town’s population, is now just a cheap clothing stall selling anoraks, shirts, and socks made in China.

And yet, as I wander through on market day, I sense real continuity: the church is open and welcoming folk with coffee and cake, and there is a regular flow-through of people, “an easy commerce of the old and new”, as T. S. Eliot puts it. The market cross, given to the town by the Bishop of Norwich in 1549, stands phoenix-like, having risen from the ashes of a fire in 1600. Still called the market “cross”, though now it has only a clock, its raised and covered floor is a place where teenagers sit, gossiping and vaping.

They may not, at this stage in their lives, know that the cross itself is a sign of their infinite value; that God loves them even to the last drop of his heart’s blood. They may not yet be ready to be changed and challenged by such a valuation; but thank God that the church is still there alongside the market, still telling and sharing the story of that cross, and its doors are still open to all.

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