Bench 69: Cornmarket
Cornmarket is in the centre of Louth. Half of the week it's a cul-de-sac that hosts half of the street market on, well, market days (Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), and the rest of the week it's a through road that gives some free middle-of-town parking and access to the financial services and estate agency kinda businesses that typify the industry here.
The market spills out into what we like to call Market Place, though to some extent that's taken over as the main stall-based trading area; Cornmarket is now an addendum to whatever's going on at the Mercer Row end of things.
The market is the hub of the town. It's oddly important to Louth. The place doesn't feel quite the same on non-market days. The market brings the town to life. We'll get to some of the specifics of that when we get to Market Place (that's another post for another day), but this end of matters has its regulars and its own flavour.
The guy (friendly, no idea what his name is) with the gents' clothing stall. The bloke that sometimes turns up selling curries, rice, pakoras, and the hugest onion bhajis you did ever see. The fella with the cheap duvets and pillows (department store slight seconds, and cheap as the proverbial fried carbs). The lady with the cupcakes.
Sometimes at this end of the market there'll be a tea van, sometimes not. Mark - who sells the army surplus stuff - is patchy in attendance when up till a couple of years ago he was an ever-present. It's a shame he's not here more. On Wednesdays a big corner set of stalls nestle right by the bench. The month before last's magazines; remaindered books. "One pound each your magazines, two pounds each your novels, here today." The call's insistent, declarative, beguiling.
Not everyone is here every market day. Stallholders have their routines too, and you have to learn them. A steady rhythm and an even pace to market life. The market's in it for the long run. Ease into it. Take your time. Chat. You're not on the internet now.
The bench has its back against the wall of the town's HSBC branch. A bin to one side, an intriguing little drainage grate underneath. What secrets did the bench planners know? What leakages were they not unaware of?
It's busy in the daytime with smokers and resters. Shopping bags and sparked-up fags. Stares in slow-unfolding comprehension at the balance you've just printed off at one of the cash machines hereabouts.
The HSBC machine's innocuous enough, though it's got one of those anti-fraud additions where the card goes in that makes it look untrustworthy. Ahead and to the left, the Halifax. The noisiest ATM in Christendom. Each key-press bleeps as though a Morse code message is being transmitted to a mothership hovering in geo-synchronous orbit over Louth.
The bench is tagged. Louth Civic Trust, 1993. It's the first such bench of theirs that I've come across. Why here? Why not, I suppose. It's well-sited and oft-used.
The whiff of a personal bugbear being turned into policy; a council override. Someone wanted this bench here. Good for you, madam or sir.
Next to the bin, a cluster of A-boards advertising businesses down adjoining Rosemary Lane and beyond. They're left out overnight; over the weekend too. Louth's that kind of place.
There's been a market hereabouts since before the Normans. Cornmarket was known earlier as Beast Market and Butcher Market; nearby streets include Butcher Lane and Little Butcher Lane. Though the livestock markets moved to the edge of town a couple of centuries ago you could still, through a quirk of tradition, buy live chickens and rabbits here (killed on the spot after purchase) until only a couple of decades ago. Wednesday was auction day, a weekly event known as "the stones"; a folk memory of goods being laid out on cobblestones for inspection before sale. That's gone in the last few years too.
Cait Green records that the Halifax building was the site of a theatre in the late 18th and 19th centuries, then the Corn Exchange afterwards. A statue of Ceres, the goddess of grain, stood here and was retained after the Corn Exchange was demolished. It's now at the town's museum.
Nearby, an unpolished jewel. The Masons Arms. A former coaching house (a predecessor inn, the Bricklayers Arms stood here from the seventeenth century) turned slightly low-rent boozer. In the daytime the Masons (the punctuation is undefined) fairly bustles with market and shopper trade; cheap tea and coffee, handy loos, plus breakfast is now available from 10 am under the new management. The food's not bad and the specials are cheap. Plus it's got the second-best bar in Louth. The best's in the Priory Hotel, if we're honest; it's like drinking in front of a licensed Gothic altar. But the Masons comes second. A proper bar of the old school. Stools and a brass foot-rest and doubled-up branded spirits for an extra quid.
Two rooms; a front and back bar. The front room's for casual visitors, the back room's for initiates. A circling crew of regulars; there's a rota that I'm not quite privy too. Ollie The Window Cleaner, Minty, Sharon, Craig the Barman, Mel Teeth, Betterware Mark, Yorkie Steve, Wiggy and Sue. A dozen or more others. Yet more are nodding acquaintances, vague faces, affable one-off drinkers, occasional drop-in pleasures. Surprising conversation, treats behind the bar for Charlie the dog, a TV in the back room that stutters between quiz shows, BBC News, whatever football's on. A Daily Mail in a wire newspaper holder that's shaped like the New York skyline.
Trade tends to drop off mid-afternoon. This is a day-time place, not a night-time one. Sure, you get pub-crawl crews and occasional parties. Couples and randoms and whatnot. The phone rings most nights with enquiries about the bed and breakfast that the place hasn't done for the thick end of a decade. Yes, they're doing the rooms up. No, they're not ready now. But most evenings the pace steadies. You can come here and think, drink, read if you like. An egalitarian oasis. And like any self-respecting oasis, there's plenty to drink.
The Google Street View image is from May 2011. The pic was taken on a market day, so there's no getting through to the bench. If you look down the image, it's by the white building directly facing you at the far end of the market.