Grainger Market, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne

Grainger Market Weigh House, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle’s Grainger Market is almost 175 years old, but it’s the very model of a modern retail centre. These days, shopping centres are huge shiny things where you need GPS to get around but Grainger Market is just the right size and still has everything you need. That great shopping anthem, the ‘Are You Being Served?’ theme tune could have been specially written for it - perfumery, stationery and leather goods, wigs and haberdashery, kitchenware and food, going up!

Arranged neatly in a grid, a series of numbered ‘alleys’ contain spruce shopfronts and orderly displays. The pyramids of fruit and veg are shiny and fresh, and I saw a butcher’s stall so beautiful that it would make a vegetarian weep. Everything is refreshingly straightforward. The name says it all – The Shaver Centre, Bags of Bags and The Wig Shop need no explanation. Jewel Box has gifts for all occasions, Simply Men sells ‘everything for the modern man’ provided he likes walking sticks and driving gloves and Petticoat Lane sells underwear and smalls that are actually quite large. However the Plain English award goes to The Cheap Tab Shop, dispensing cigarettes at competitive prices, and doing a roaring trade if the queue was anything to go by.

Amongst the remarkably unremarkable stalls, the last remaining Marks and Spencer’s Penny Bazaar comes as a bit of a surprise. Michael Marks opened the first of these in Leeds in 1834 and their success turned M&S into a household name. This year as M&S celebrates 125 years in the business, the stall in Grainger Market is as modest as it has always been. Officially the world's smallest branch of Marks and Spencer, its original signage dating from 1895 is considerably more beautiful than its high street compadres.

The Weigh House is another gem. For 20p you can step on a pair of huge scales and have an attendant discretely write your weight down on a little ticket. As there’s a constant queue there’s a sense of camaraderie that you don’t get at weight watchers. There are screams of joy from some ladies when they see they’ve lost a pound or two (insert “ah-weigh the lads” joke here).

Grainger Market butcher

Over all, there’s a real “all human life is here” feeling about the place with shops catering for every eventuality, from the cradle to the grave. Yes, you can even get your gravestone made here. For all its lack of pretensions, it doesn't have the rough edges of a typical market. There are no potbellied traders barking about their bargains or hawkers trying to sell you tat. Instead, Patsy Cline croons from Grainger CDs as the shoppers mingle. Business looks healthy but not hassled.

If the shopping becomes exhausting there’s a pleasant food court at one end under a glass roof where diners can choose from a range of culinary experiences – none of them very exotic. Sarah’s Tuck-In, (again with the concise descriptions) serves up fried treats in a wipe-clean environment, Oliver’s looks a little more genteel and at the other end Jay-Z’s serves the young folk.

Built by architect John Dobson and Richard Grainger, who left a lasting architectural legacy in Newcastle’s town centre with his Grainger Town, it was the largest indoor market in Europe when it opened in 1835. A high-class shopping mall before the concept had been invented. By today’s standards it is still pretty special – an ordinary place now so rare it has become extraordinary.

How to get there

Grainger Market, Newcastle NE1 5QG is in the city centre near Grey's Monument. It has entrances on Grainger Street, Clayton Street, Nun Street and Nelson Street.

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How timely! I am doing a market there next month. Have visited before and was particularly taken with the way that this place has kept its original features - quite a feat given the enormo mall next door.

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