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Virtual Christmas market showcases Bishop's Stortford businesses and raises money for food bank

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When the second lockdown forced many Bishop's Stortford traders to shut up shop in the crucial run-up to Christmas, Catherine Tillbrook created a social media directory for local small businesses.

The 48-year-old mother of two set up Facebook group Bishop’s Stortford Virtual Christmas Market and invited business owners to take a 'stall' in exchange for a £5 donation to the town's food bank, which is based at the Methodist Church in South Street.

"I think [the food bank is] something that resonates with everyone in Stortford," said Catherine. "At this time of year, there's lots of people struggling."

Intricately designed biscuits made by The Biscuit Atelier (43136724)
Intricately designed biscuits made by The Biscuit Atelier (43136724)

The online market features 85 virtual stallholders, all of whom are based in the Stortford area. Owners post pictures of their products in their allocated photo album and are allowed to create one post a day to highlight their items or website.

"I thought it would be really good to pull the community together and support local businesses, not just the ones on the high street but the smaller ones too," said Catherine.

Her virtual market went live on November 1 and so far more than 2,500 people have joined the group. "It's gone crazy, it's been really popular," she said.

Hats made by Cosysaurus (43136712)
Hats made by Cosysaurus (43136712)

In fact, three stallholders – The Biscuit Atelier, Tom's Bonbons and Lisa’s Crafts – have been so inundated with requests that they have had to suspend new orders.

Similar virtual markets have been started in Sawbridgeworth and Great Dunmow.

Catherine, who lives in Thorley Park Road, moved to Stortford when she was four and went to Northgate Primary School and Herts and Essex High School. Husband Richard, 53, who works for Northgate End recruitment firm HR GO, also grew up in the town and attended Thorley Hill Primary School then The Bishop's Stortford High School. Their children, Alex, 20, and Eleanor, 17, also attended Thorley Hill Primary then Herts and Essex High, where Eleanor is still a student.

Catherine previously worked at Halifax in Market Square's Corn Exchange. She was made redundant in 2016 and became a consultant for Arbonne, the vegan skincare, cosmetics and nutrition company.

Wreath by Halo Blossom Floral Design (43136715)
Wreath by Halo Blossom Floral Design (43136715)

She is one of the stallholders in the virtual market and has tried to keep the collection of businesses as diverse as possible; there is an assortment of hand-made products available along with locally produced food, drink and other goodies.

"It's just quite good to highlight what fabulous businesses we have," said Catherine. "I'm hoping we're going to get a lot more business for our local community."

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