Town Travel - My favourite town by Annie Whitehead
Hexham – The Happy Place in the North
On December 3rd 2019, the market town of Hexham in Northumberland was crowned ‘the happiest place to live in Britain.’
Well, I can’t comment on that because I don’t actually live there, but I can see why it might be true. Hexham is a delightful place, situated close to Hadrian’s Wall, and where you can find a farmers’ market and, apparently, Viking-themed events. The mayor of Hexham, Mr Bob Hull, commenting on the award, said that there is a really strong sense of community and that there is a community-owned cinema, a thriving theatre and an arts centre. He also pointed out that there are more than 200 listed buildings.
He’s not wrong that Hexham is thriving. On my first visit I found myself happily caught up in the Literary Festival and had access to quite a few free events. It’s relatively easy to park there – often for free – and all the main shopping streets are confined to a small area, where you can browse in art shops, antique shops, as well as finding your basic provisions.
For me, though, the place to go is the medieval abbey.
There is an emptiness about Northumberland; even now, there are vast areas of open countryside without any buildings, and you’ll hardly see another car on the road. In the Middle Ages the centres of population, such as Hexham, must have been highly valued, by the pilgrim, the weary traveller, or simply the people who lived in what must have been a very tight-knit community. The area has harsh winters, so a sense of community must have been especially valuable during the coldest months.
Hexham Abbey was founded when Queen Æthelthryth, wife of King Ecgfrith, granted the land to Bishop Wilfrid to build a Benedictine monastery. She was quite a character, having been married twice and (according to Bede), managing to preserve her virginity throughout both. She eventually left Ecgfrith and returned to the south, to found Ely Abbey on land which came to her via her first marriage.
The building that the visitor sees today is not that which Wilfrid built. His church was completed in 678, but partly destroyed by Viking raids in 875. In the early twelfth century, the church became the Priory of Canons Regular of St Augustine and from the mid-twelfth to mid-thirteenth century more building took place.
In 1296, Scottish raiders set fire to the priory, and in the process destroyed shrines, books and relics. It is said that molten lead ran down the night stair and can still be seen to this day. The priory was rebuilt once more.
But, excitingly, the original Anglo-Saxon crypt, from Wilfrid’s time, still exists and can be visited. I say excitingly, because visiting it gave me a tangible connection to the people whose stories I write. Although my novels are set primarily in the midland kingdom of Mercia, the Mercians had a long and tangled connection with Northumbria, as it was called then. In May, my new book about Anglo-Saxon women will be published by Pen & Sword Books and Æthelthryth is one of those featured women.
For Dorothy Dunnett fans, Hexham will also be recognisable as it is the setting for some scenes in her novel The Game of Kings, the first book in her Lymond Chronicles. This is especially significant for me as I was the first winner of the HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Award, and part of my prize was a complete set of the Lymond books.
A visit to Hexham is rewarding. Along with the Abbey café, there are plenty of places to eat, the town is pretty, and pleasant to stroll around. So much of what I write about is encapsulated here: I can see an Anglo-Saxon crypt, I can see a beautiful landscape, and there is a real connection to the people I write about. It’s not often that one can see such things; few Anglo-Saxon buildings survive, and few locations can be identified with any certainty. The other lovely thing about Hexham is that, often, dissolved monasteries are ruins, out in the middle of nowhere. But, during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, Hexham’s chancel and transepts survived because they were needed by the parish church. And, as a parish church, it remains in the centre of this yes, I say it again, thriving town.
Take a trip to Hexham. I am sure you will be as delighted with it as I am.
My Chill Award winners:
To Be A Queen
Alvar the Kingmaker
Cometh the Hour
Other Town Travel's to visit...
Lectoure, France with Michael Reidy
Somerset, UK with Dizzy Greenfield