10 years of the Winchester Christmas Market

PUBLISHED: 11:46 29 November 2016 | UPDATED: 11:46 29 November 2016


This year marks the Winchester Christmas Market’s 10th birthday and as the area around the cathedral is transformed into a winter wonderland, expect some added sparkle at this year’s festive celebrations says Viv Micklefield

Walking between strings of twinkling pea lights, the smell of mulled wine and bratwurst drifts through the chilled air. High above, the Cathedral’s majestic medieval tower momentarily diverts the attention skywards but the pull of the crowds swarming below proves irresistible. And rounding the corner, a fairy tale village of a hundred wooden chalets unfolds.

This is Winchester’s famous Christmas Market and for the past decade the Cathedral’s historic Close has been transformed into a winter wonderland that’s widely regarded as one of this country’s, if not one of Europe’s, finest.

“We deliberately set the bar high,” says diocese enterprise manager Phillip Holroyd-Smith, who’s responsible for overseeing the entire event. Phillip continues: “The Cathedral is an iconic place and we want to ensure that whatever we offer lives up to the setting,” adding: “We are constantly planning the Christmas Market. No sooner does one market finish then the process starts all over again.

“Our first job, at the beginning of February, is to decide on the layout, select the traders and to zone it. We’re always on the look-out for innovative, new producers. The craft village focuses on British-made items; we might have three or four people selling jewellery, but always ensure there’s a variety of styles to meet the needs of different budgets.”

Winchester based artisan soap maker Lisa Lockyer has been looking forward to setting-up stall for the first time. “I’m so excited to be here and look forward to meeting lots of people,” she says. The presence of individual artists, potters, weavers and leatherworkers is a welcome alternative to mass market kitsch and in response to visitor feedback, for 2016 there’s plenty of choice when it comes to tasty festive food, both to take home and to munch on the move.

“There’s always good quality food here,” says Emma Farrow-Thomas, back for a second successive year with her gourmet grilled Cheese Company. “We’ve got our ‘Christmas Quacker’ duck and sour dough sandwiches again,” which by all accounts went down a storm last time and, she promises both Hampshire bacon and Lyburn cheese are on the menu once again. With the month-long market currently costing the Cathedral around £4million to stage, it’s a far cry from the 40 traders that set up stall for two weeks back in 2006. So how did it all begin? And with any profit ploughed back into Winchester Cathedral’s operating costs, does this festive consumerism in any way detract from the season’s religious message?

Roland Riem is the acting dean and worked at the ministry when the decision to hold the market was taken. He recalls the previously low-key celebrations. “Christmas in Winchester was a tree by the Buttercross. There was though a nervousness that the market might take business away from the shops so, originally, it was going to be nearer to the High Street. But because of the historic graveyard, we brought it on to a space that’s always been used to hold events. And the sheer footfall of people coming to the market now means that everybody benefits.”

Indeed, it’s become so popular that following a month-long build, mid-November sees the market opened by a community lantern parade through the city’s streets, followed by fireworks, and a blessing conducted this year by Roland. Of course, it’s not only locals but visitors from around the globe who descend on Winchester to soak up the atmosphere. With hundreds of thousands expected, this calls for some slick coordination behind the scenes, by Phillip and the team.

“The market is such a big part of Cathedral life, it involves personnel from across the organisation,” he observes. “As well as myself, our head of operations, grounds and estate manager, the receiver general, retail operations, caterers, and marketing are all involved.

“We also work very closely with Winchester Business Improvement District, the Tourist Office and City Council, and employ over 100 extra staff during the Christmas period.”

Many of these will be working as stewards, on hand to offer assistance to everyone including the hard-working stallholders because as Phillip says: “If our traders are happy then our visitors are happy too.” However, whilst nothing pleases him more than the market in full flow and despite six years’ experience at Winchester, challenges remain.

“It’s a balancing act between operating a commercial enterprise with vast numbers of people arriving alongside a very busy period in the Cathedral calendar. As an example, the music levels on the ice rink need to be managed to make sure this doesn’t interrupt the services inside.”

This temporary rink creates a magical playground for adults and children alike. Ideal for burning-off a few calories or just for a giggle, the market’s centre-piece comes into its own as twilight approaches. With the Cathedral lit up and a warm glow radiating from the market stalls, according to Phillip, this year’s new all-weather clear roof offers the same great views as before, but with added protection from the elements.

He also recommends taking time out from the hurly burly by heading for the sanctuary of the Cathedral refectory for a cuppa and a cake. Or, if you don’t want to miss out on the action, the ice rink café is the perfect vantage point for a cheeky glass of Prosecco.

With so much going on, any risk of the Cathedral becoming a side-show is quickly dispelled by Roland. As far as he’s concerned, in many ways, the market’s success has served to enhance its standing at this time of year. “As a church, Christmas officially starts on December 24, so having the market here means it starts a bit earlier for us. We now have afternoon family services with the choir singing in the Cathedral on the last two Sundays of the market, which are, usually, packed out. People often say it’s a really special part of their Christmas celebrations.

“Within the village, we have a Nativity scene where you can remember the Christmas story by dressing-up in costume. Next to this, Winchester Churches Together have a chalet for reflection; last year’s theme was, ‘hopes for Christmas time’ which even saw a marriage proposal.”

The festive spirit certainly creates a few surprises. “One of the things I remember most about each Christmas Market is the sense of togetherness and the laughter,” says Roland admitting that, whilst no expert, over the years his skating skills have improved no end.

2016 Winchester Christmas Market (until Tuesday December 20)

• Where: The Close, Winchester SO23 9LS

• When: 10am to 6pm Sunday–Wednesday; 10am to 7.30pm Thursday–Saturday. Entry is free. For more details and information about this month’s Cathedral services and music events, visit www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk/home/christmas-at-the-cathedral. Annual Cathedral passes are on sale at the market.

• How: the M3 (Jct 10 or 11) provides access to East and South Winchester Park and Rides. Operating between 6.25am and 8.30pm, Monday–Saturday, parking and travel is £3 per car (£2.50 after 10.30am). A free Sunday shuttle runs until December 18.

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