Small Pleasures: Bath Christmas Market – some thoughts and lots and lots of pictures

Yesterday, my wife and I went to the first night of the Bath Christmas Market. It’s the first Christmas Market Bath has held since the pandemic. The one in 2020 was cancelled due to Lockdown. The one in 2021 was cancelled due to staff shortages following the pandemic and the loss of foreign workers caused by Brexit.

The Bath Christmas Market is a big deal locally. In the two weeks it runs for, it attracts 400,000 people to the city, outnumbering the locals by four to one and generating a huge additional spend in the city (estimated at £32,5 million in 2019).

Three years ago, in what seems like another life, when the Christmas Market was just another of those parts of life that we all took for granted, residents might have sighed at the thought of having 400,000 people pushing through the narrow streets and squares at the centre of Bath, making it harder to get real shopping done and local stores might have complained that the little stalls, many of which sat in front of existing shops, damaged their trade and siphoned off some of their Christmas earnings.

Then the pandemic happened and the life we’d all taken for granted blinked out of existence. By December 2020, even according to the carefully limited official numbers, we had had 72,000 people in England die of COVID and more than 2,000,000 people had been infected. We had all spent a year living with isolation and loss. A vaccine had just become available in December 2020 but hadn’t been deployed widely enough to offer protection to any but the most vulnerable. As we approached Christmas, Bath was in Tier 2 Lockdown. Most businesses were closed and the streets were eerily empty. The city still put on a show, lighting up the buildings, but there were few people around to see the results. Here are some of the pictures that I took in 2020.

This year, when I heard that the Bath Christmas Market was going ahead, I found myself cheered by the news. I’m an introvert. I hate crowds. I’ve spent three years learning to see other people as infection vectors. And yet, in those three years, I’d discovered that I didn’t want Bath to be a beautiful but empty stage set. I wanted to see it filled with people who were excited to be there.

I wasn’t sure how it would go. Brexit, COVID, the war in Ukraine and the corrupt, incompetent zealots governing us have damaged our economy and destroyed some of our hope. Bath is a relatively rich town. Incomes here are 30% above the national average and the population of the town has grown by 9% in the past ten years, 50% above the national average. Yet we still have people sleeping rough on the streets, more and more working people are dependent on our Food Banks, we have empty shops in our main shopping streets and we’re having to provide warm public spaces because people can’t afford to heat their homes. Would people come to a Christmas Market when times are so hard?

Last night was a sort of soft launch for the Christmas Market, which starts in earnest today. The market opened for two hours, from 17.00 to 19.00, It was mainly for Bath Residents, to whom all the vendors offered a 10% discount. When we got there, we found that the city had excelled itself in adding a little magic to its streets. There were a lot of people but not so many that you had to push your way through the crowds. The stalls offered all kinds of things we didn’t need but would be happy to have: handmade candles and soaps in an incredible variety of fragrances. (Who would have thought to combine Sandlewood and Rose or Orange and Tangerine? But they worked.); knitwear, leatherwear, cleverly worked wood, Christmas ornaments that ranged from intricate glass baubles through wooden ornaments wrapped around dried flowers and fruits through to wreaths and huge lights in the form of fretwork paper stars. Then there were the street foods, the drinks stalls selling coffee, hot chocolate, mulled wine and fancy kinds of gin, whiskey and vodka, and the restaurants and pubs, lit to lure you in and make you want to stay awhile.

The people seemed happy and friendly and glad to be together in a space designed for celebration. It seemed to me that the air was filled with a quiet determination to embrace what we can while we can. We know the world has changed. Our futures aren’t what we thought they’d be. But the present is still ours and we will make the best of it.

Here are some of the pictures I took last night. I hope they capture some of the atmosphere of the Christmas Market.

The full Christmas Market started today. We have strong winds and rain. Yet the streets are packed with people and I think they’ll stay that way, despite tomorrow’s rail strike. As I watch the tourists moving through town, it seems to me that they’ve come to Bath to spend a few hours away from their daily lives and give themselves up to the possibilities for happiness that come from gathering together to eat and drink and buy presents and tell ourselves and each other that we are still living our lives and that their worth living.

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