Pocket Britain

A Northumbrian market town that's dominated by its historic abbey

Hexham is a Northumberland market town not far from Newcastle. It's a common stop-off point for people walking Hadrian's Wall, which passes by a short distance to the north. This ancient fortification is one of England's greatest historic relics - but Hexham also has its fair share of old buildings.
The most important of these is certainly the abbey. Without it, the town would probably have never existed in the first place. Coming to Hexham without visiting it would be like going to Paris without visiting the Eiffel Tower.
The original Hexham Abbey dates back to 674 AD. Incredibly, the crypt from that ancient time still survives. Pilgrims would travel from miles around to pray in the darkness of this sacred place. It was constructed using Roman stone, taken from a fort at the neighbouring outpost of Corbridge. If you look carefully, you can still see some of the old Latin inscriptions.
The abbey was abandoned in the 9th century, and forgotten about for several hundred years. It was finally re-founded in the 1100s, and extensively rebuilt. Much of what you see today dates from that time. More significant work was done on it in the 19th century staying true to the Early English style of the original abbey. Thanks to this, it looks as grand and elegant today as it ever did.
There are a couple of other buildings in Hexham that rival the abbey for age. One is the Moot Hall, just opposite, which began its life as a gatehouse in the 15th century. It helped to defend the town against the frequent Scottish invasions. Nowadays the Hall is used by the council, and is unfortunately not open to the public. Nevertheless, it has remained a familiar sight in central Hexham for many centuries.
Just a minute or two's walk from here is another old building that you are free to explore properly. This is the Old Gaol, a box-shaped 14th century construction. It's reputedly the oldest purpose-built prison house in England. After it stopped housing criminals, the building was used by many different groups and businesses including banks and billiards clubs. In 1980 it opened in its current guise, as a museum and library. You can learn about the prisoners, and the terrible conditions they were kept in.
Sandwiched between all these historic buildings is Hexham's focal point - the market square. On two Saturdays each month they hold a farmer's market here. It's often considered to be one of the very best markets in the country. All of the stallholders come from within a 50-mile radius of the town, ensuring that the produce is as fresh as possible. There are no middlemen, just the farmers selling directly to their customers.
On the outskirts of Hexham is the only horseracing course in the whole of Northumberland. It has been holding races for well over a century. The surrounding slopes form a natural amphitheatre, ensuring good views of the action. Around a dozen meetings are held every year, and form some of the biggest social events in Hexham's calendar.
Visitor Information
Hexham Abbey is open daily from 9:30am to 5pm. Entry is FREE. Beaumont St, Hexham NE46 3NB. Tel: 01434 602 031
Old Gaol is open weekdays (Tuesdays only in February and March) and all Saturdays from February to September from 11am to 4pm. Opens for special days in winter. Entry costs around £4 for adults, £2.50 for children. Hall Gate, Hexham, Northumberland, NE46 3NH. Tel: 01434 652 349

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