The longer I've lived in America, the more of a stranger I feel when I return to England. What struck me this visit was how exotic the local street markets feel. When I was a kid, market stalls were an absolute last resort when your parents couldn't afford to buy something in a proper shop. They were the homes of cheap batteries that never lasted, and brand-name clothes surrounded by a aura of suspicion. In San Francisco "farmer's markets" are at the opposite end of the scale. If the Ferry Building slid into the sea on a Saturday morning we'd lose half the Bay Area technology workforce.
I walked around Bury St. Edmund's and St Ives' markets this weekend, and I was struck by how much things had changed. There was still a fine selection of dubious clothing, but there were attractions for the gourmet too, with game pies and Spanish hams.
It was a good reminder that England isn't as backwards as I sometimes assume based on my memories. My brother has been involved in market stalls on-and-off over the years and he gave me some interesting background. In Bury there used to be a waiting list for space but now there are empty spots. That's opened up opportunities to new traders with less-traditional merchandise, but it's because the older stalls are closing.
I was sad when I saw the local butchers had just closed down too, but then my sister described a visit with her husband's family, where the meat looked extremely unappetizing. I was reminded of that when I saw a stall in Bury selling meat from cardboard boxes.
It's easy for me to slip back into nostalgia, but supermarket meat counters are better than the average butcher's shop I grew up with. I'm hopeful that the best traders with something unique to offer will do well, and I shouldn't mourn the passing of the rest too much.
It was a good reminder of the limits of my knowledge of Britain these days. I left because I was frustrated at the resistance to change, but progress still happens, even if it's not at the pace I'd like. There's also usually a complex story behind the surface, and as an outsider I'll often miss it. The UK changes a lot more than you'd think, because the British do a great job of transforming things while maintaining the appearance of continuity, in street markets and everything else.
If you want to experience them for yourself, I highly recommend looking at the small towns near where you'll be in Britain. The network of cities was built up around fairs and markets, and you'll still hear medium-sized rural places described as "market towns". You'll often find a morning or two a week the center is closed off and stalls set up. It's Saturday and Wednesdays for Bury St. Edmunds and Monday for St. Ives.