Marion Sauvebois looks back on a turbulent decade at the Swindon Farmers’ Market... where hard work has finally paid off

AMBLING along the score of stalls of Swindon’s bustling Farmers’ Market, it is hard to imagine the beehive of activity was once a fledgling venture struggling to fully come into its own.

The rows of producers offering homemade or homegrown fares lining the entrance to the Swindon Outlet Centre projects a very different picture to the cluster of eight traders who gathered outside the mall back in November 2004, when it all began.

And its popularity was obvious on its 10th anniversary last weekend, as queues formed at the Parisian Bakery stall, the fruit and vegetable producers and for Hinton Marsh Farm’s famous bacon burgers and hotdogs.

The odds were not in stallholders’ favour on the first day of trading back in 2004 as torrential rain kept customers at bay.

By week two, it seemed as though Swindon Farmers’ Market would never achieve the success manager Kardien Gerbrands always believed it could.

“It has been really hard and we’ve had some incredibly difficult markets here, where it’s been wet and windy,” said the 52-year-old from Stroud.

“Being a stallholder in the UK takes a tough spirit. To be honest I didn’t think we would be celebrating the 10th anniversary.

“It feels like a real achievement because it’s been so slow in building up. It feels really good to still be here.”

Kardien, or Gerb – the nickname most people know him by – was approached by the Outlet Centre to launch a weekly market in Swindon; an ambitious project at a time where most ran monthly.

Developing the market certainly proved a protracted labour of love for Gerb after the swift success of his first venture, the multiple award-winning Stroud Farmers’ Market, which started 15 years ago.

“Back in 2004 there were hardly any markets that were weekly – it was unusual. A lot of them were monthly or fortnightly.

“The Outlet Centre were taken with the idea of doing one once a week. When we came to look at it, we thought it would be a good venue for a market. We promoted it to the people we knew and advertised to other stallholders.

“The first market we had 30 stalls. But that first day was really horrible and none of them had a very good day. So the second week we ended up having eight stalls. And for the following six or seven years we struggled to get more than 10 stalls every week.”

“But the footfall was high and that was the thing that kept me feeling confident that it would work.”

Following a tentative six years, the market turned a corner and suddenly attracted not only a new base of loyal customers after locally-sourced meats, produce, sauces, preserves and honey but an array of fresh sellers.

“Four years ago something happened. Suddenly it became steady every week. Because we had better trade we had more stalls coming. After a long period of struggle, it’s finally paying off for everyone who stayed.

“When stallholders told me they’d had a bad day I would go home and worry about how I could do to make it work for them. I spent years worrying and suddenly the last few years it’s finally worked. I thought ‘Hallelujah! Now I can breathe’.”

This popularity may have something to do with the rising interest in buying fresh foods straight from the producer.

“The majority of people in Swindon are interested in local food. People like to meet the producers and that’s what farmers’ markets are all about. It’s the direct contact with the producers so you know where your food comes from. You can ask questions about the food production process.

“And you can’t compare the quality and freshness available in farmers’ markets with supermarkets. We are offering people the choice to buy from small producers working the land in less mechanised ways.”

On the back of this success, Gerb was enlisted to revive the defunct Havelock Market in the town centre.

Unlike some of the larger markets where stallholders keep to themselves, the strong camaraderie among Swindon’s sellers has made the venture all the more worthwhile for Gerb.

“In Stroud, the market is so big, they don’t know each other or have a chance to walk around and chat. In Swindon, there is a family feel among the stall holders.”

This warmth is one of the reasons traders have kept coming back.

“We have been here for almost a year and there is such a nice atmosphere,” said Tina Schafroth, of GlamoRose cupcake shop. “And you can come to this market and pretty much do your weekly shopping if you wanted to.

“From meat to vegetables to bread and cakes, it’s rare to come to a market and get everything you need. Traders work so closely, they buy from each other. That’s what makes it different.”

Swindon Farmers’ Market was also hailed as special by Martin Bond, of Wiltshire Chilli Farm.

“We have been here for about four years and this is our best weekly market,” he said. “It’s busy and you get massive crowds. And everybody is friends here.

“Provenance is a key thing and everybody here is involved in the product and has a strong working knowledge of how it is made. They are very carefully selected products. We all buy from each other.”

The Farmers’ Market runs every Sunday between 10am and 4pm outside the Swindon Outlet Centre.