This lovely market town is well worth the visit. With a farmers’ market, beautiful park with floral gardens, stunning architecture, many eateries, independent shops and art galleries, there is something here for everyone.
Peaceful it may look, but going back through the ages, Hexham has a bloody past, with stories involving marauding Vikings, border warfare and with the town being a regular target from Scottish raids.
Oozing with history, from the Old Gaol, this Grade 1 listed building is England’s oldest gaol and can be traced back to the 1300’s. Now a museum – the Border Library Collection – situated within the prison – is home to a collection of photographs, books and artefacts. Descend into the dungeons, try out the stocks if you dare. Learn how in medieval times crime and punishment were dealt with. Unfortunately, it opens April to October, so we shall have to plan a return trip.
Just around the corner and you are at Moot Hall, another Grade 1 listed building (overlooking the market square). This late medieval tower, intended as a gateway, was built in the 14th century and up until 1838 was used as a home, office, chapel, court and gaol under the rule of the Archbishop of York’s bailiff.
The small farmers market takes place twice monthly, in the market square and held under The Shambles, a Grade 11 covered construction built in 1766.
Situated in the heart of the town, and saving the best till last, is the Abbey. A stunning Grade 1 listed building dedicated to St Andrew, has witnessed periods of immense turmoil and change. This spectacular building literally took our breath away, with its luxurious interior and monastic relics, the Abbey has a rich and evocative history. More than 1,340 years of cultural development have been written in stone. Many additions and much restoration have created a major visitor exhibition, refectory café (with toilets), gift shop, function rooms and community meeting spaces. The Abbey is home to three choirs and attracts volunteers for bell ringing every Sunday, with the oldest bell being cast in 1742.
Although there is no charge for entering, they do ask for donations, which we were happy to pay. Staggeringly, with costs over £10,000 per week to maintain, this magnificent edifice houses one of the largest collections of medieval wooden panel paintings in the country, with stone carvings dating around 500 years, beautiful side chapels (chantries) and with old choir stalls on the western end of the chancel dating back to the 15th century.
In 1881, the tomb of a Roman trooper was unearthed in the foundations, Flavinus was 25 when he died and had served for seven years. The tombstone stands at nearly nine feet high.
The crypt complex of tunnels was discovered accidentally in 1725, when a builder working on the Abbey disappeared into a huge hole. He had unearthed one of the passageways of Wilfrid’s spectacular crypt, which had been lost for hundreds of years, and sadly Wilfrid’s relic collection had since vanished.
Staff are present to welcome visitors, arrange crypt tours and sell guide books, whilst answering any questions you may have. Next to the entrance is the Night Stair, 35 stone steps, worn by constant use since the 13th century. This staircase was used daily by the Canons descending from their dormitory on their way to service in the choir. The gallery at the top is the perfect place to view the Transepts and the jewel-like Victorian stained glass that fills the 13th century Lancet windows.
History abounds, from the ancient fount bowl with its 18th century cover and tall canopy, to the Frith Stool that was a block of sandstone fashioned into a seat. A great and informative audio tour is available on the Abbey website. This is a living church, a place of beauty and awe.
Of course, Hexham is perfectly located for exploring the surrounding countryside including the Northumberland National Park, Hadrian’s Wall and numerous Roman Forts, including Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum.
We loved our day and pretty sure you will too.