Livestock markets are more than just a place to buy and sell – they are the heart and soul of the rural communities they serve. Philip Bowern takes a tour of one of the most valued as it enters a crucial phase
On the conference room wall in the Holsworthy offices of Kivells, the auctioneers, hangs a photograph taken towards the end of the 19th century.
It shows Holsworthy on market day, when livestock was sold in the street. Every man is wearing a hat; most sport beards. Every beast has a fine pair of horns. There are no pens – the men standing around are acting as human corrals.
Fast-forward to 2014 and the market that was built not long after those basic street sales is reaching the end of its life. After 106 years of trading, it is looking distinctly the worse for wear. It requires, conservatively, around £1 million of investment and without significant improvements it might struggle to hold onto its licence from Defra.
Thankfully, however, the far-sighted folk at Kivells, who run the market, and Torridge District Council, which owns the current town-centre market site understand its importance and have taken steps to give it a new lease of life on a new site.
Weather and building work permitting, a state-of-the-art agri-business centre, incorporating an expanded market, offices and a host of essential services will be opening on the outskirts of Holsworthy on the first Wednesday of July, funded by proceeds of the old site's sale to Tesco.
The superstore chain plans to build a rival to the Waitrose and Co-op branches in the town – and build new homes.
Including a grant from the Regional Development Fund totalling around £400,000 and close on £1 million from Devon County Council, £7 million has been put into in the new market. It is, by some measure, the single biggest project of its kind in the further reaches of the West Country for a number of years.
James Morrish, of Kivells, is full of admiration for the council – of which he was once leader – for making such a commitment at a time when many local authorities are re-trenching and sticking only to the things that they are legally bound to do.
"This is massive for little old Torridge," he said. "All credit to them for sticking to their plans. Virtually everyone is onside." He said even the majority of town-centre traders, who benefit from the potential customers that market day brings to Holsworthy, had come to accept the change. And to help ensure farmers can still get easily into town, a free Hoppa Bus will run the two miles from the new market to the town centre on market day.
Kivells has been at the centre of the agricultural community in the area since 1885. Mr Morrish admitted that when the plans for the new market, on a greenfield site, were first submitted they were ready for dissent. "We were expecting heaps of objections. In the end the only two objections were from Waitrose and the Co-op," he said.
"From our point of view, this market will give us a wonderful opportunity, not only for livestock sales but for all the other things that go with it, on a vastly improved site – all brand new.
"We consulted with farmers and they came up with one or two ideas and so we worked with them. Animal welfare needs will be high on the agenda at the new market, with lairage facilities so that cattle and sheep coming from a way away can be brought in overnight, fed and watered and bedded down.
"We've been at our existing site for 106 years. The truth of the matter is we are probably not going to be doing this for at least another century and we wanted to get it absolutely right."
As a result of that attention to detail, changes were made to the original plans, effectively turning the building around so that it faced away from prevailing winds, even though that meant significant extra work for contractors Morgan Sindall.
"It's been a long, long process," said Mr Morrish. "We started talking about this in 1995." The site was low-grade farmland that had been set aside, initially, to become a pet cemetery. "It wasn't good land and had been left fallow," said Mr Morrish.
He doesn't believe the new market will take trade away from existing markets in the area, most of which are already run by Kivells anyway. "A new market doesn't attract livestock all by itself," he said. "The boys will have to keep working to get the trade here."
But with its modern office accommodation, purpose-built trading centres, replacing the wooden sheds at the current market, upgraded restaurant, and state-of-the-art pens with easy access for lorries and trailers, it is certainly going to change the lives of those for whom market day is a big part of their week.
What it also guarantees, Mr Morrish hopes, is that the vital pastoral role a market plays, bringing together farmers, who often live isolated lives, will continue. Today's buyers and sellers who come down off the hills and up the farm tracks every Wednesday may be generations apart from the old boys in their hats and beards tending horned cattle in the Holsworthy street scene that hangs on Kivell's wall.
In essence, however, they want the same thing – somewhere practical to meet and do business. Hopefully, come St Peter's Day – the first Wednesday in July and an important day in Holsworthy's calendar as it is carnival day – that is just what they will get.
Mr Morrish said: "Torridge has agriculture as its biggest economic driver. To think of Holsworthy market disappearing is unimaginable." As the current market crumbled away, that was once a distinct possibility. It isn't any more.