St Thomas Church hosted the area’s first community winter market on Saturday, with stalls and activities spread throughout its Cowick Street churchyard and buildings and festoon lighting strung between the trees to create a festival feel.
Organised by local volunteers, the event was funded with small grants from Exeter City Council and Devon County Council and sponsorship by local firms.
Event organiser Sophie Yeates, a painter and decorator who has lived in St Thomas for twenty years, said she felt St Thomas was an overlooked area but was now “growing stronger and stronger” with “a community feel and lots of families moving in”.
She said: “There’s so many creative people who live in this area and there’s lots of these lovely markets popping up all over the place around the city.
“I thought, ‘Why haven’t we got something like that?’ — that’s where the whole idea came from.”
Traders sold goods ranging from hand-printed cushions to vegan chocolates inside and outside the church building. A children’s storyteller held court in the church hall, where there was also a festive wreath-making workshop and an exhibition by Theatre Alibi.
Artist Steve McCracken, who is responsible for the colourful birds which popped up across the city’s streetscape during lockdown, held an outdoor art workshop for children and displayed the canvasses they created against the church walls.
Entertainment included a kids’ silent disco and Devon drumming group Tano Taiko, whose members delivered thundering performances in front of a large crowd.
Community groups including St Thomas Community Garden were pitched beside local charities including Refugee Support Devon, Devon Wildlife Trust and Age UK Exeter.
According to Sophie Yeates, a “really big part” of the St Thomas winter market was providing support to fledgling traders by offering “mini pitches”, smaller stalls which cost less to hire than the larger stalls which were used by more established sellers.
She said: “There’s just loads of people that have not really done this before. Maybe they don’t have the confidence to put themselves out there, or for whatever reason, but it’s been quite important that we’ve tried to encourage them.”
Kiara Baars was selling handmade friendship bracelets from her mini pitch. She said: “I’m a starting-out trader. I’ve only done a couple of stalls so far and this one’s the best one I’ve been to for sure. There are so many people here and it’s a lot of business”.
Another mini pitch trader, illustrator Marson Wu, who was trading for the first time at the event, said: “I was a bit nervous but now it’s nice to be around people and see different creative things”.
Co-organiser Jocelyn Mills said the event had been a success: “The footfall has been absolutely extraordinary today. We didn’t expect this for a first time event here but so many people have said how brilliant it is to see the space being used, and it’s such a gorgeous site. We’ve had some amazing feedback.”
She said she hoped the market would attract more funding in the future to enable it to programme more artists, musicians, storytellers or other entertainment.
“We’d love to do more of that, and have a broader diversity of people and what they can bring, in terms of what they make or what their skills are.”
She added: “We’re definitely keen; the heart, the motivation, the core driver of us all being residents of St Thomas , wanting to do something to animate the spaces in our community.”
St Thomas winter market was one of several outdoor markets taking place in Exeter in the run-up to Christmas.
The revamped Eastgate Market opened on Sidwell Street on Friday, where it will trade every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from now on, and Fore Street Flea returned with a festive theme on Sunday. Both are delivered by InExeter.
Exeter Cathedral’s Christmas market also opened last week for its fourth year, and Magdalen Road will be closed to through traffic on Saturday 4 December for the long-running St Leonard’s Neighbourhood Association Christmas fair.