Traders are fighting back against the out of town hypermarkets.
They're asking not 20, not 10, not even five. In fact, over 380 markets and nearly 40,000 traders are taking part in the first Great British Market Week which starts tomorrow. Designed to raise the profile of our street and covered markets, the event is the brainchild of the National Market Traders' Federation. Food policy experts raised the alarm recently when it was revealed that the number of market traders in some areas has halved over the past three years, mainly because of the increase in out- of-town supermarkets with their one-stop shopping and accessible, free parking.

Federation spokesman, Roy Holland, estimates that there are about 1,000 markets in Britain, run by around 700 operators, mainly local authorities but with some private companies of varying size. "We don't really know how many markets there are because no records are kept," he admits. "There is no central agency to keep account."

One of the few federation branch members in the West Country is Pool, outside Camborne in Dorset. But the North and the Midlands remain the strongholds of the large permanent markets which, far from surrendering to the supermarkets, are fighting back hard. Barnsley has just spent pounds 6m refurbishing its markets and adjacent car parks and Sheffield plans to move its markets from their present user-unfriendly position to a new, purpose built site nearer the city centre.

Birmingham is about to revamp the Bull Ring, site of long established markets. "Great British Market Week is part of a long campaign to bring people back into city centres," says Keith Atkins, Director of Commercial Services for the city council and president of the Institute of Market Officers.

"We have to get parking and accessibility right. It's a partnership between the city councillors, the traders and the community they serve," says Atkins, who has no doubt that markets will survive the decline since their heyday in the 1970s. "Birmingham's markets have been around since 1243 - another 1,000 years is not going to be a problem."

Chris New is in charge of 350 stalls in the centre of Barnsley and agrees with Atkins that there is a whole generation of young shoppers who have been brought up on hypermarkets, "and don't know what they are missing. Glitzy plastic and chrome shopping malls are perhaps more attractive to younger people. We need to compete, to give the best platform for our traders to perform."

The food halls and open markets have just been refitted and up to pounds 30,000 per year is being set aside to maintain the bright new image. After a trading drop of 15 per cent in the past two years New reports a marked revival in customer interest.

In Northampton last month the borough council, in a joint initiative with market traders, began bussing customers to the historic market square, though elsewhere it is being argued that street markets will have to join the supermarkets in out-of-town sites as shoppers will not make a second trip into town-centres. Ironically, supermarket chains are emulating street stalls in the design of their fresh produce counters.

Tim Turner, Northampton's buildings and markets manager said his council had not increased market rents for the past three years and was spending more on promotional material.

"You have to be versatile," he says. "There are changes in fashion in shopping: when it started 800 years ago the market sold cows and sheep, now the big seller is computer games. And markets have what shops will never have, which is low overheads."

Walthamstow is not only the largest of London's many markets but is reputed to be the longest street market in Europe. Although trade is down, its size has kept it going, says Geoff Lamprell, chairman of the Association of Street Traders. "There can be 70,000 people here on a busy day."

Glasgow's markets are strategically placed around the city's perimeter and are seen as an economic necessity, whereas York's, believed to be the only seven-day market (only closing on Christmas Day), strikes a balance between local shoppers and the busy tourist trade. Overseas visitors see our markets much as we see theirs - as a way of getting inside a culture. But as one market manager pointed out, many Britons never visit markets except on holiday. Some believe local authorities should invest more in all-weather covered markets.

Stockport market's motto of "spend a day not a fortune" is reflected in the week's activities; historical costume and traditional street entertainment feature widely. It will be interesting to see whether the malls ever become as sociable and community-minded as the markets. Huddersfield in West Yorkshire will be using its market place for a party for 1,000 children on the last day of the festival. It is hard to imagine such an event happening in the corridors of a shopping centre.

In character, markets and supermarkets are like chalk and cheese: spiel versus speed, atmospheric bustle versus brightly-lit procession, chat versus check-out. Their only common ground seems to be customers with an eye for value. In a society like ours, which so loves to shop, there is surely room for both. But if ever there was a case of "use it or lose it" markets are it.

Random House are publishing two paperbacks by Phil Harriss, The Cadogan Guide to London Markets and The Cadogan Guide to British Markets (February 1997, pounds 9.99).

Meanwhile, across the channel...

On Thursday mornings the crowds surge into the picturesque town of Dinan, in north-western France, for its weekly market. In the middle of the throng a family of English visitors, over on a weekend break, are snapping pictures of the colourful scene around them, but despite the delicacies to be seen, they've only bought the makings of a picnic. "It all seems so expensive," the wife explains. They're saving their resources for the hypermarket before they board the ferry home.

Market prices aren't cheap, even when allowing for the artificially high level of the franc. In Dinan's Intermarche, chicken is on offer at 10 francs a kilo; in the market scrawny though distinctly free-range birds from local farmyards sell at 70 francs a piece. For those with a taste for exotic fungi, morels are plentiful, but the springtime delicacy commands 330 francs a kilo. Farmhouse cheese and butter, honey, cider and delicious home-baked bread are all readily available, though at prices that horrify most English visitors.

Such prices do not deter the French, the market is crowded and the stalls display cornucopias of produce. If you're after fresh spring beans, there are a dozen varieties to choose from; green, red or mottled; short, long or plump. Cauliflowers are piled as high as icebergs above lush exotic lettuces still dripping with the morning's dew. An alley off the market square is devoted to seafood: lobsters, spider-crabs and oysters, mountains of live prawns, red mullet, tuna and John Dory sit alongside fish only a zoologist might recognise.

Dinan market's appeal has nothing to do with thrift. For Dinanais this is a weekly opportunity to buy fresh local produce and luxuries unavailable in the shops. There are superstores in Dinan's outskirts and many of the town's more specialised small shops have closed. European regulations are slowly putting paid to farmyard calvados and cider. For many French, such markets provide a link between sophisticated modern living and healthy contact with the soil, the sea and rural kitchens. Behind one stall a Jolly, vast woman, smelling sweetly of fresh compost, is the very image of an unadulterated peasant. She's selling hand-made, unwrapped cheese. In England she'd be arrested by health and safety officers. Here she's "une artisanne", a national institution.

Hamish Scott