The search for England's favourite market town
If you happen to live in Nantwich and you see a Bentley Silver Spur easing through the centre of town with someone who looks remarkably like Ben Fogle in the back, then you will have spotted our judge for the Midlands. He will be considering whether this Cheshire delight has what it takes to scoop the award. Bentley is kindly donating the car for the day to make sure the judging goes as smoothly as possible. Other impossibly luxurious sports saloons may well be cruising through towns as far apart as Hexham in Northumberland and Faversham in Kent.
The judges will be asking themselves if a particular town is where they would like to live. Does it have charm and beauty, plenty to do and a sense of community? Would you look forward to shopping for top-quality food and goods, in shops staffed by friendly, helpful shopkeepers? Are there ample amenities for old and young, such as town halls, open spaces and good parking? A town may possess an indefinable 'X' factor, which gives it the edge over its rivals. You have done your bit, now the judges have to select a winner in each of their areas, and the five finalists will have to fight it out at a special lunch, when all the judges meet to put their case in October.
THE SHORTLISTED TOWNS ARE:
Judge: Penelope Keith
1. ALRESFORD, Hampshire.
It has a steam railway to Alton and its Millennium Trail is a successful new walk. Plenty of good shopping in aptly named Broad Street.
2. FAVERSHAM, Kent.
The first town to be given a bypass (by the Romans), it has the oldest Cinque Ports charter, and thriving local company Shepherd Neame is the oldest surviving brewery in the country.
3. LEWES, East Sussex.
In the foothills of the South Downs and close to the south coast. Its steep high street with its mel?of period houses and ancient passageways-called twittens-give a special character.
JUDGE: THE RT HON JOHN GUMMER
1. MALDON, Essex.
One of the least spoilt towns in Essex, it lies on the wide Blackwater estuary. There is a seafood month throughout September and an oyster festival. The Maldon mud race has recently been revived.
2. FAKENHAM, Norfolk.
Famous for its mills, it also has a racecourse which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. There is a charter market every Thursday and a farmers' market every month.
3. FRAMLINGHAM, Suffolk
Its medley of architectural styles from timber-framed and Regency to Georgian red-brick and Victorian yellow-brick gives the town a distinct character and the curtain-walled castle is where Mary Tudor was proclaimed Queen.
JUDGE: DAVID HOPE
1. BEVERLEY, East Riding.
Beverley Minster towers over the town. It has folk and literature festivals, and the Saturday market-with 140 stalls-dates back to the town's charter in the Middle Ages.
2. HEXHAM, Northumberland.
There has been a settlement here, 20 miles west of Newcastle, since Saxon times and it is the closest town to Hadrian's Wall. Among many useful stores, it has a violin shop. In 2001, the new market was judged the best Farmers' Market in England and Wales by the National Farmers' Union.
3. BARNARD CASTLE, Co Durham.
Perched high on a bank overlooking the River Tees, it is home to the splendid ch?au-style Bowes Museum.
JUDGE: BEN FOGLE
1. NANTWICH, Cheshire.
A popular food and drink festival is held next month (September 23-25) among the Grade I-listed timber-framed houses. It also plays host to the world worm-charming championships.
3. ASHBOURNE, Derbyshire.
Popular with tourists and locals, this largely Georgian town nestles in the Henmore valley on the edge of the Peak District. It has many small tea rooms and restaurantsas well as specialist outdoor clothing and climbing equipment shops.
3. STAMFORD, Lincolnshire.
Called 'the finest scene between London and Edinburgh' by Sir Walter Scott, it was one of the richest towns in England by the 14th century. It also benefited from the stagecoach era of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Today, its riverside festival is one of the biggest free music and arts festivals in the area.
JUDGE: NOEL EDMONDS
1. TAVISTOCK, Devon.
This has wonderful specialist shops (such as the famous N. H. Creber delicatessen), traditions (such as the Dickensian Christmas) and a great local paper. And it is all surrounded by stunning scenery.
2. SHERBORNE, Dorset.
A beautiful town with an abundance of medieval buildings, a superb Abbey, famous schools, picturesque almshouses and a new castle, as well as an old one. There are several societies, including a town brass band, and there is a regular market every Thursday and Saturday.
3. MARLBOROUGH, Wiltshire.
There is plenty of room for the twice-weekly market in England's widest high street, which has yet to be swamped by chain stores. It also hosts one of the best jazz festivals in the country.