Lincoln Christmas Market was established in 1982. It was inspired by a visit three local councillors paid to the city’s twin town Neustadt an der Weinstrasse in Germany. They witnessed an event that brought Neustadt together in a festive celebration. Convinced that Lincoln could do likewise, they organised the first event, which consisted of just eleven market traders selling Christmas goods in the shadow of the Cathedral.
That modest start grew into a four-day bonanza that brought over hundreds of traders and hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city during the first week in December and became the inspiration for Christmas markets all over the UK.
But all is not well. Last year’s event saw over 320,000 crammed into the market site, testing its organisation and the support systems to the limit. This was 44,000 up on the 2021 numbers. Not only that but it lost money. The £43,000 deficit has to be added to over £45,000 lost in 2021. As a result, the city council has decided the event could no longer be organised safely and cost-effectively and on the 20 February, they announced that the 2022 market would be the last.
Predictably, there has been an outcry. Many of the small businesses in the city, who see the huge influx of visitors as a chance to boost their takings, complained about lack of consultation. They petitioned against the decision. There were calls for the council leader to resign.
Local media piled in and were joined by the local MP Karl McCartney who branded the council “a convention of Grinches or Scrooges” for their decision (the fact that McCartney is a Conservative and the city council is dominated by Labour is of course pure coincidence.) Conservative councillors tried to have the decision called in for review, a move that has been rejected recently.
The shouting has died down somewhat now so it’s worth examining the cancellation decision more closely. Take the overcrowding issue which clearly has health and safety implications. The number of visitors last year meant the council had to institute a one-way system. Visitors had little or no chance to browse the stalls as they pleased, such were the numbers.
Underfoot, conditions could be treacherous with uneven cobbles in places creating trip hazards and – when wet or muddy – a real danger to anyone with mobility issues. In 2010, the market had to be cancelled at very short notice for similar reasons, after heavy snow made the locations impossible. Even then, there were complaints about the short notice. Imagine the ruckus if someone had suffered serious injury.
Nor was the event universally popular. Besides coping with the crowds, residents in the north of the city faced significant disruption, with parking restrictions, road closures, noise and litter during the market period. The nature of the stalls – mostly fast food and a funfair – meant many city residents simply felt the original idea had become cheapened. It was not unusual to see what was on offer described as ‘overpriced tat’.
It would be reasonable to say then that opinions on the market are divided but there is no doubt that, as things stand, its absence will leave a huge hole in Lincoln’s visitor ‘offer’.
The city council has anticipated this and wants to spread the £260,000 budget across a series of events. This should not be a problem as there are plenty of unique replacements that Lincoln already stages or could stage.
One, the Steampunk Festival, is well established. This attracts huge numbers of devotees of all ages of the Steampunk aesthetic (with its unique look of Victorian and Edwardian costume combined with scientific artefacts).
It is already scheduled for three days in August this year and is regarded as the largest event of its type in the world. It shouldn’t take much to promote this to a wider audience, who could use their time to explore the city’s attractions as well as appreciating the vibrant atmosphere and the costumes.
2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd, one of the foremost composers of the golden age of English renaissance music in the 16th and 17th centuries. There is commemorative concerts throughout the year all over the country. Byrd was organist at Lincoln Cathedral between 1563 and 1572 and a house near the Cathedral bears a plaque to show that he once lived there.
He died on 4 July 1623 and the first week of July this year sees a number of performances in and around the city by The Tallis Scholars and the Gesualdo Six, two of the UK’s most acclaimed choirs with global reputations.
There is an international conference and a commemorative memorial will be unveiled during the week. This is a cultural event of world-wide importance and the council would be stupid not to take this chance to promote the city’s connection with Byrd globally – not just this year, but annually.
While the Cathedral and Castle (with its copy of Magna Carta) are the city’s best known historic features, Lincoln also has an eye on the future. Once it was closely associated with engineering. The city’s university now runs a Frequency Festival. This biennial digital event looks at the way technology is transforming lives, from robotics to the quality of the air we breathe. The next festival is scheduled for October this year.
As Lincoln was also once the home of George Boole who invented Boolean logic, a key concept in computer programming, it shouldn’t be too hard for councillors to see the connection between Frequency and Boole and the potential it offers for staging something that attracts significant numbers of visitors.
It’s early days and the full repercussions of the decision have yet to be felt. The market gave Lincoln a national identity but it was nakedly commercial. It’s hard therefore to imagine the council would want anything too radical to replace it. They are now moving to the next stage by asking for local opinions on what should take its place.
Will they stick with a familiar format or will they use their imagination and make better use of the city’s cultural heritage than they currently do? How ambitious do they want to be?