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Bric-a-Brac: C is for...

Covered markets

Concrete fun! Got a headache yet?

To get to the covered market you need to take a long walk down a shallow concrete ramp. It’s about 4.15PM on a Saturday, the only time to pay a visit, under a heavily overcast sky, lowering clouds forever threatening a downpour that never quite arrives. Atmospherically oppressed from above, overcoated folk hurry about to get their ‘last minute bits and bobs’ before the various joys of Saturday evening are upon us. If the atmosphere above deck is one of gathering storms, unsupped pints and unclaimed dividends, at the bottom end of the ramp it’s altogether more intense. I’m getting concrete, I’m getting sawdust, I’m getting freshly gutted mackerel. I’m getting… yes, all right, piss. But the olfactory overload is nothing compared with the headache engendered by the criss-cross network of strip-lighting that illuminates the scene. Council officials have diligently ensured that a mandatory thirty percent of the overhead lighting is set to a permanent wild flicker, giving certain corners a definite ‘epileptics keep out’ air. God knows how the old dears manage to keep body and soul together as they browse the haberdashery stalls in ambient conditions that would have been deemed ‘a bit much’ at Studio 54. The concrete cavern may be solid enough, despite being only twenty years old (FACT: all covered markets were opened by either Prince Michael of Kent or Vince Hill), but the stalls themselves are permanently on the verge of collapse. The favoured building material is pegboard. All the better to hang loads of packets of wool and Rawlplugs off, certainly, but it doesn’t half give the impression of a Mexican shanty town, eking out a meagre existence under the feet of the mighty ‘proper’ shops. Where the market really excels is in the novelty department. The kind of practical joking tat eschewed by the more respectable emporia is here in abundance, making the little joke cubicle the nearest you could get to those mythical ‘joke shops’ the folk of the Beano were ever dashing into. Only without the abundance of on-premises chuckles. Novelty vending is a serious business, and customers implicitly understand that any pleasure is only to be had when said goods are well out of the frowny sight of Alan the proprietor. All this surly transaction is good practice for the progress from black soap to Black Sabbath, and a trip to the second hand record stall. The intimidating atmosphere of second hand record shops is legendary, but the stall’s an even bigger ordeal. After all, in the shop the tubby know-all with the PiL t-shirt and the thousand well-argued reasons why compilation albums are for the mentally deficient is up to six feet away. At the stall it’s more like six inches. And he knows the contents of those punnets back to front – every hesitation you make in the lengthy flicking process is read, deciphered and facially disapproved of while you sweat. Bomb disposal operatives have a more placid time of it. Inevitably you leave with nothing. In fact, best to get out of the covered market altogether. The stalls are battening down their unwieldy plywood hatches and that miserable bloke is disconsolately pushing a hinged double broom arrangement in your direction – a final ‘clear off out of it’ gesture if ever there was one. Time to get back to the surface people. The Pink Panther’s on in a minute.



  1. Jon

    October 18, 2009 at 3:56 am

    Don’t really remember the covered markets although we did have one back in the 70s. But I remember the grim tiled indoor markets (usually set up in the site that was a popular ‘J Sainsbury’ or something in a previous life), these places were usually stinking hot (because of the many dodgy gas heaters scattered about) and would waft up that distinct smell of stale coffee and cigarettes with a hint of Ajax!

    The “oh-so cheerful” female housewife workers (someone always with a Henry vacuum cleaner just for the carpetted entrance!). Barbara from The Royle Family-type 50 somethings dressed in leggings, knitted jumpers, dodgy clip-on earrings, chewing know the sort.. who…even when the place went ‘sparkling-tinsel’ mad at Christmas..still looked as miserable as the weather outside!

    Of course, what with the likes of Wilkinsons, to my knowledge, we’ve largely seen the death of these tat-filled grottos and I’m surprised, what with all these empty Woolworths stores now… – I won’t give them ideas! I’ll say no more!

  2. Richard Davies

    September 24, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Hyde has 2 markets like this, one in the basement of a 1970s shopping arcade & another in a converted cinema.

    These sorts of places always seem to have a “While U Wait” shoe repair & key cutting booth with a line of bar stools just before the counter, along with a “warehouse clearance” bookstall, & since the late 1990s a mobile phone accessory stall.

    Macclesfield has a similar basement ones, & the one in Manchester’s Arndale Centre has been moved & become a tiled one.

  3. The Haj

    September 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    Many of these indoor markets seem to have been designed in the ‘Brutalist’ school of architecture. The main idea of which appears to be all buildings need to look like the offspring of NCP car park and an atomic fall-out shelter.

    My late uncle was a Civil Engineer and told me that the reason for all the grey puddles was due to the quick setting chemicals and other additives being washed out of the concrete by the rain.

  4. Liam

    February 23, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    The Haj has hit the nail on the head regarding the design of indoor markets. They’re something I know a fair bit about being from Wrexham, we’ve got THREE of the bloody things.

    You certainly can’t do a proper shop in one, unless your idea of a proper shop is a rug styled in the manner of a kitsch Indian restaurant, a T-shirt with “Cymru” printed on it in the Carlsberg font, a packet of sugar letters and a can of Tizer. Oh, and the kind of “gold” jewellery that turns your skin green.

  5. Adrian

    February 24, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    A good idea in theory, but always let down in the execution (eg poor lighting & either too hot or too cold). A lot of the markets also seemed to use red & white striped covers for the stalls for some reason.

    IMHO I think covered markets only seem to work if fairly upmarket ’boutique’ type affairs.

  6. Joanne Gray

    May 6, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    Just for the record, not all joke shops are “mythical”. Hartlepool had one, on the sea front at Seaton Carew, in amongst the chippies, amusement arcades and souvenir shops. Don’t know if it’s still there (probably not, I’m talking about something that existed 40 years ago) but my Nana took me in there once when she had a win on the arcade bingo and she bought me a laughing bag (a hand sized cloth bag with a drawstring fastener that contained a loudspeaker contraption that emitted a wheezy laugh whenever you squeezed it. I liked it and used it for several months until the battery ran out (they even made batteries to last in the 70s) but I’d really wanted a set of chattering clockwork false teeth instead.

  7. Adrian

    August 11, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    Birmingham city centre had a covered market which almost completely matched this description back in 1990/91 – although it’s prosumably long since been swept away by the city centre redevelopment.

  8. Tom Ronson

    November 13, 2022 at 3:46 am

    Awkwardly shifting from foot-to-foot and smiling politely while the bloke in charge of the second-hand record stall openly sneers at you for buying The Beatles 1967-70 and launches into his party piece about why Pere Ubu or the bleeding Comsat Angels are far better than Fab Macca’s pop combo. Just take my money and fuck off, mate, some of us want to get home in time for Russ Abbot’s Madhouse.

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