The lady at the bus stop in Blackpool said: “I’ve only been to Lincoln once –and that was to the Christmas Market.” (We were in Blackpool because Lincoln City were playing at nearby Fleetwood…. yes, I know, don’t go on)
After this chat, while our party waited for the number 19 to take us to into town, I found myself reflecting that the experience of this lady was similar to that of thousands of Northerners and Midlanders across 40 years.
People like coach trips. (They are relatively inexpensive). They like markets. They like going somewhere and coming back on the same day. And you are nine times more likely to fall into conversation in a market than a supermarket (source: Doncaster’s Town Team public initiative).
Many of those who came have of course returned to see Lincoln in summer. The Market was a great factor in the city's pre-pandemic revival.
We traded on Lincoln Christmas Market for eight years with the Bygone DVDs and met thousands of day-trippers from distance, many of them on the Saturday.
(Once we served the BBC Radio Four Presenter Libby Purves… In the semi-darkness of the Friday night my wife recognised her by her voice).
But now we are at a stage where Lincoln Christmas Market is too big for its boots. Three hundred thousand people attended in December, when only 250,000 were expected.
This might make us unpopular with our friends in small business, but we don't think we can argue with the health and safety case. Years ago a casualty officer at Lincoln County Hospital warned of the crush implication on a Saturday afternoon when coachloads, and some trainloads, have arrived from everywhere from Oxford to Heckmondwike (and some, like German friends, from much further)
A friend, quite used to crowds, told me how claustrophobic it was on the Saturday afternoon this time when the Castle grounds were full and those wanting to enter had to wait in Castle Square. Her only way out was to enter commercial premises and escape by their back door.
The Council will know from its drone and CCTV footage, and from the complaints, how tricky things were. Not a very enjoyable experience for thousands of people by the sound of it.
The question is what to do now - and the Council have invited ideas here closing on April 25th.
Our humble tuppence worth: Rather than lose a 40-year-old brand, promote the Lincoln Christmas MarketS (plural) with great emphasis on the final S in all the publicity. These could be partially themed, e.g. food, arts and crafts, gifts, and, as suggested by the Council, be held on staggered weekends through November and December. The locations could vary so the impact is scattered across central and uphill Lincoln – and new areas could be introduced to visitors.
This would have to be followed with a big effort to get the “S” message, and the dates, across to coach operators and the public. All contacts, traders etc, could be asked to help spread word.
Dispersing the crowds and the impact in these ways should keep the city trading….. and keep the brand alive. The experience could be more pleasant for everyone.
Would traders still think it worth their while to come from far and wide? Would a more local flavour be a bad thing? There would undoubtedly have to be a few years of suck it and see.
But we'd hate to see the brand close down. Huge efforts across the decades by the Lincoln FFN (the first organisers and ongoing participants ever since) and generations of Council officers, traders and others would be laid to waste.
Collaboration with coach operators should, we think, continue. As the lady in Blackpool said, Lincoln at Christmas is an attraction. But if you don’t see the offer from your local coach operator (because the offer no longer exists) then Lincoln as a visitor destination will surely suffer.