Kate’s office is up in the corner of the gallery. There’s a big sign outside telling you you’ve found the right place, and a strip of glass in the door through which you’ll most probably see Kate on the phone. You knock. Go in. Hesitate. Is this a good moment? Kate looks up over her specs, the very picture of a busy woman interrupted. Then she smiles.
Luckily for me, it was a good moment when I went up to Kate’s office a couple of days ago, wanting a chat with the dynamic force behind Shrewsbury’s Market Hall and its current success. When I said who I was, Kate beamed and said, ‘Oh, you’re you.’ She’d known I was coming, and had seen me around the market on a fairly regular basis, but hadn’t put face and name together.
‘Do you know anything about medieval culverts?’ Kate asked, no sooner had I sat down. I had to confess I didn’t, but if I found out anything, I promised, I’d let her know. Kate was one of those people, I quickly realized, who was interested in all sorts of things. Today it was medieval culverts. Who knew what tomorrow would bring.
An image came into my head of Kate managing the market hall from her bath chair – which in case you’re wondering isn’t likely for a good few years yet. But what exactly did that managing entail? Kate explained that her responsibility extended to the entire Market Hall building, from its 1960s clock tower down to the shop units on the street at ground floor level. The fabric of the building was in her care, as was its day-to-day management and the letting of units, which Kate described as a diverse mix.
Even the medieval culverts didn’t escape Kate’s beady eye. And she certainly had her eye on everything that happened in the market itself, most specifically the stalls around the outer edge and up at Gallery level, which were let directly by her, while the stalls on the floor of the market were let by Shrewsbury Council.
So, in this marriage made in heaven, how did Kate and the Market Hall first meet? Kate's background was in agriculture, she said. She grew up in a Sussex farming family and studied at Riseholme College of Agriculture before coming to Shropshire to work for the Limousin Cattle Society. It was from here that she was approached by the BBC to work on 'On Your Farm' and 'Farming Today', both in production and management. She learned a lot during those years, and later, running her own garden design and IT businesses, she learned a whole lot more, she said, especially about marketing and PR.
And the market, I asked? What did she know of the market’s background? Kate told me that the market had been trading in its current building since 1965, and there were still a couple of stall-holders who could remember the old [Victorian] market that was there before. In all that time the market had sold fruit and vegetables, bread and cakes, meat and poultry, much of it locally sourced, as well as flowers, fish, delicatessen, books, china and antiques.
Over a decade ago, however, sensing that the market’s image needed revamping, a company was brought in to help attract back the sort of shoppers for whom out-of-town supermarkets were an increasing pull. They started tackling the problem of the market being at first floor level by posting juicy-looking photographs of fruit, veg, flowers, happy traders and happy customers in the entrance hall and up the stairs. They also devised the market’s current look, bringing in striped awnings and creating more of a sense of separation between individual stalls. To this day those awnings remain controversial, but the market is busier than it’s ever been, and where once it would be easy to rent a stall, there are currently none to spare.
No doubt that the fortunes of the market have turned about. And it’s not just awnings that have done that - in no small measure, it’s down to Kate. She’s been such a champion for the market. In all the while we sat talking together, the two words that kept coming up were passion and vision. Kate wanted visitors to Shrewsbury to not be capable of leaving without visiting the market. It should be a must-see destination, she said. ‘What Shrewsbury Market has to offer is nothing short of Sunday supplement material. I’m not sure that everybody realizes that. It truly is a remarkable place - every bit as much a treasure as Rowley’s House, Shrewsbury Castle or the Old Market Hall.’
Kate would love to turn what she sees as the awnings problem - with views across and down upon the market hall, particularly at Gallery level, currently blocked by a sea of green-and-white stripes - turned into a national competition utilizing the great internal height and airy lightness of the market hall to create arts installations in the form of awnings for a 21st century market. The space and drama of the building’s interior, she feels, is not being used - and this would be a fascinating way of putting Shrewsbury Market on the map.
With or without new awnings, the market is certainly changing. Old stallholders may have been on the market floor since 1965, but new stallholders have been coming in, bringing in a whole new generation of shoppers. Kate said she was delighted to see arts and crafts added to the mix, along with vintage clothes, hairdressing, the arrival of Pengwern Books and Sam Pooley’s art classes for kids.
Then there were the cafes, that over the last couple of years had been getting themselves noticed and pulling people in. The sofas beneath the twinkling lights of the Birds’ Nest Café were always full, as were the tables at Morrocan café, Mezze, and the bar stools of Ian’s seafood bar, where champagne and oysters were on the menu. In fact all three were listed in TripAdvisor’s top eateries in Shrewsbury, with Mezze coming in at No. 7.
‘Do you like fresh mackerel?’ Kate asked me. ‘When you have a moment, you’ve got to taste Ian’s special way of cooking it. Get him to do it for you. Tell him I told you.’
The phone rang. I scribbled down the words ‘mackerel’ and ‘Ian’, then sat back and looked around. This was plainly the office of a busy woman. There was plenty of desk space, but all of it was filled. Boxes were stacked up and files filled shelves with very little space to spare. For some reason a collection of stools, upholstered with Union Jack patterns, commandeered the middle of the floor. Computers were humming, the phone had gone down only to ring again. Behind Kate’s head was her portrait – a confidently executed caricature of a lively woman with a hundred things to do.
All the while she was on the phone, Kate was digging through her press cuttings to show me things. Here was Shrewsbury’s new marketing strategy, in case I was interested – ‘Shrewsbury: The Original One-Off’. And here was the prize the market won last year - Best Council-Run Market in the Country. This was definitely something to crow about, but it was just a start, Kate said. Already she had the accolade 'Britain's Best Loved Market' in her sights. She was proud of the market, she said, but as important as any award was seeing people come in and spend hours browsing, eating, drinking, filling their bags and seeing something different on almost every stall.
What was next on the vision stakes, I asked? Improving the look, said Kate. Getting funding to improve the entrances. A market housed at first floor level needed the means to draw people in. And Kate intended to keep banging away at the idea that what this market had was special. Again she said that not enough people realized what an exciting foodie destination Shrewsbury’s market was. And it was full of interesting people, too, she said. All the stallholders had their stories. I should get out there and talk to them.
Someone knocked on the door. They’d come to see Kate about the possibility of taking on a new stall. I took my leave. Next door to Kate’s office the most delectable toy shop caught my eye, full of castles, galleons, jigsaws and trucks. I’m a grandmother now, so couldn’t resist a browse. Then it was off along the Gallery heading for the stairs. Looking down upon the sea of awnings, knowing there was a bustling market hidden below I could quite see Kate’s problem. Perhaps a national arts competition to design 21st century awnings wasn’t such a bad idea.