PUBLISHED: 16:18 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013
Optimism flows though the towns and villages of the Tyne Valley as refreshingly as the waters of the great river itself. Writer and photographer
Travelling west along the River Tyne from Newcastle, leaving behind its majestic bridges, thriving arts scene and lively party atmosphere, we gain a very different environment - the tranquillity of the Tyne Valley.
Charming rural villages, such as Ovingham, Riding Mill and Haydon Bridge, hug the banks of the best salmon-fishing river in the country, whose upper valley is dominated by the ancient market town of Hexham.
Given the region's importance as the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire, we might imagine Hexham's history to date back to this time. But, in fact, there seems to have been no Roman occupation of Hexham, the major settlement in the area being the Roman fort of Corstopitum, on the edge of modern-day Corbridge, three miles downstream to the east.
Historical records for Hexham actually begin with the building of the Abbey in 674, when Bishop Wilfrid of York was granted land by Queen Etheldreda. Not that the Romans didn't leave their mark on the town. Bishop Wilfred had returned to Northumbria after a visit to Rome, inspired to build stone churches in the same style as he had seen there.
But his native craftsmen lacked the requisite masonry skills. So, in perhaps the first example of recycling in the history of the Tyne Valley, stone was pillaged from Corstopitum to build the new church. Evidence for this can be seen in the form of repeated decorative patterns and carved inscriptions in the stones which make up much of the crypt - the only part of Wilfred's original building to survive.
A thriving community gradually grew up in the environs of the Abbey, in what is now the town centre, and the central importance of this fine church continues to this day. Canon Graham Usher, the Rector of Hexham, says:
'Hexham is a friendly and welcoming place, and historically it grew around the Abbey. For many people the Abbey is the heart of our community and there is a great pride among local people that they have such a jewel in their midst.' This sense of community reaches out to the wider world.
Julia Grint runs Ergo Press, the publishing arm of Cogito Books, the town's charming independent bookshop. She recognises that community spirit is crucial to the growth and security of the town's many small, independent businesses. Calling Hexham 'a small business dream town', she says that the people of Hexham are discriminating and appreciative, and that they care about the community in which they live. She adds that 'this is why we still have an outstanding independent butcher, fishmonger, cobbler and bookshop,' despite the ever-present competition of major supermarkets.
Hexham recently became the first place in Tynedale to achieve Fairtrade Town status and the town has also launched a Transition Town Initiative, which aims to encourage both a greater reliance on home-grown or locally-sourced food, and initiatives designed to cut car use. The town was also recently judged to have the Best Farmers' Market in the North - proof, if proof were needed, of the community's green environmental credentials.
As a place in which to live and to do business, Hexham enjoys wide approval. Geof Keys, Artistic Director of the Queen's Hall Arts Centre, mentions excellent schools, and good leisure and arts facilities, as contributing to an excellent quality of life for people living in the town, along with the fact that Newcastle is easily accessible and only 30 minutes away. And, in the face of a global economic downturn, Hexham offers support for businesses wishing to grow.
Fentimans, famous for its botanically-brewed soft drinks, has its head office in the town. Tiffany McKirdy, Fentimans' Operations Director, says that the firm is in the course of expanding its operation in Hexham, thanks in part to organizations such as the Hexham Business Forum and the Hexham Community Partnership - and this at a time when many companies are tightening their belts. This sense of optimism is echoed along the Tyne Valley.
In Haydon Bridge, for instance, a long-awaited road by-pass is nearing completion. This will divert heavy A69 traffic flow away from the area, bringing a new-found sense of calm and peacefulness, and an enhanced experience for people using the village as their base for exploring the surrounding countryside.With a flourishing cultural scene, numerous high-quality eating establishments, beautiful countryside and abundance of historic treasures,
Hexham and the Tyne Valley have much to offer residents and visitors alike. And in uncertain economic times, when more people are holidaying at home rather than going abroad, one certainty remains: a warm welcome for anyone discovering the delights of Hexham and the historic riches of the other towns and villages that nestle along the banks of the Tyne.