A day out in Hexham

Neil Coates visits a town that fits contemporary influences and historic traditions together in a neat jigsaw - perfect for finding some great gifts. 

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Reflect, as you saunter the hilly, densely-packed byways and ginnels of Hexham, that you’re shadowing the progress of rather more intransigent visitors of centuries past. Today’s tranquil town, nestled in the broad-shouldered, verdant valley where the North and South Rivers Tyne confluence, disguises a long and colourful history. It’s an area haunted by the Reivers, harried by Scots and Vikings and with more than a whiff of Roman influence.

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You’ll come across aspects of these past visitors in any visit to one of the Tyne Valley‘s liveliest centres. It’s a handsome country town in the old-school mould, where weekly livestock auction sales complement the frequent produce and farmers’ markets which see the central, colonnaded shambles and square bustling with trade and chatter – Christmas Markets on 12 & 13 December ice the seasonal cake.

Spilling out from this vibrant centre is a web of lanes threading to parks and riverside walks. The dominating presence is the sturdy parish church, rising above the Abbey crypt founded by St Wilfred 1340 years ago, later laid-waste by Vikings. This magnificent lynchpin is a masterclass of the mason’s art; its soaring transepts and chancel a triumph of medieval architecture. Tantalising fragments of the Roman era are housed here in St Andrew’s Priory Church, although there’s no direct evidence that these Latins ever settled here.

Indulge in browsing cobbled streets such as St Mary’s Chare, or drift along Gilesgate or Hallgate past a flurry of studios and galleries adding contemporary frissance to the old-town jigsaw, where café culture rubs shoulders with robust market taverns. To learn a little of the intriguing history here, stroll beneath the commanding medieval Moot Hall tower – from where justice was dispensed until 1838 – to find the town’s Old Goal. Dating from the 1300’s, it’s one of the country’s earliest prisons, where long-term guests included many-a Border Reiver. These marauders led a lawless life as cattle rustlers; fearsome, unruly clans who terrorised these borderlands in the Middle-Ages; their tale is told in the revealing museum housed in this tiny-windowed edifice.

The swift-flowing Tyne swirls past the town; it’s northern stream coursing through nearby Chollerford village where Hadrian’s Wall crossed the river, guarded by the cavalry fort of Cilurnum (Chesters). Taken with the substantial garrison town at Corstopitum just east of Hexham – one of the most astonishing sites along the old Roman frontier – the options for a richly rewarding winter’s day’s are legion!

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Great pub

For an eagle’s eye view of the town, head for lunch (not Mondays!) to The Rat Pub in Anick hamlet, on a shoulder of land one mile NE of Hexham. Built of stones borrowed from Hadrian’s Wall; ultra-local beers and Northumberland’s best produce are a heady, divine mix – a table on the terrace laps up Tynedale views from this secluded 200-year-old inn.