Hexham - the pretty market town's religious pedigree still attracts many visitors

PUBLISHED: 00:44 18 June 2013

There has been a church on the site of Hexham Abbey for more than 1,300 years

There has been a church on the site of Hexham Abbey for more than 1,300 years

Andrew Smith

Hexham offers many attractions to many people but for one group of visitors, its deep religious foundations are reason enough to stop and pray a while. Andrew Smith follows in the footsteps of the saints.

The market town of Hexham is regarded these days as an attractive place to live, work and relax. It’s a good shopping centre offering quality high street outlets, specialist bespoke shops, supermarkets, cosy cafes, pubs and inns of great character and fantastic leisure and sporting facilities, with fishing, golf, horse racing and walking all abundantly catered for.

But Hexham is also a place of religious pilgrimage and has a justified claim to be regarded as importantly as Lindisfarne and Durham insofar as the spiritual heritage of the North East is concerned.

The magnificent Hexham Abbey draws many thousands of visitors each year to a site where worship has taken place for more than 1,300 years. It is possible to step back every one of those years by descending into the Anglo-Saxon crypt established by Wilfrid, Bishop of York, later to be canonised as St Wilfrid, when he built the first Benedictine abbey with the proceeds of a grant made by Queen Etheldreda.

As with so many centres of religion, the presence of an Order attracted a lay community and settlement, and Hexham grew to become a town that was fought over down the centuries, witnessing violence, strife and suffering that belied its foundations in peace and prayer.

During the time of the Border wears between England and Scotland, Hexham was attacked by both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, with the former burning the town in 1297 and the latter demanding a ransom of £2,000 from the town and monastery not to do likewise 15 years later. In 1346, the monastery was sacked during an invasion by King David II of Scotland.

The bloodshed continued in 1446, when the Battle of Hexham was fought just to the south of the town during the Wars of the Roses and the defeated Duke of Somerset, who commanded the Lancastrian troops, was executed in Hexham Market Place.

All this took place in the shadow of the Abbey, which was constructed on the site of Wilfrid’s monastery between 1170 and 1250. The choir, north and south transepts and the cloisters, where canons studied and meditated, date from this period.

The Abbey’s affiliation originally, of course, was to Rome, a city visited several times by Wilfrid and, on his final visit, also by his younger companion, St Acca, who succeeded him as abbot and bishop and is credited, largely as a result of the chronicles of his friend and fellow Northern saint, Bede, for completing Wilfrid’s work to create a centre for Christian worship and learning at Hexham.

The east end was rebuilt in 1860 and the nave, whose walls incorporate some of the earlier church, was built in 1908. In 1996 an additional chapel was created at the east end of the north choir aisle. Named ‘St Wilfrid’s Chapel’, it offers a place for prayer or quiet reflection.

Almost 800 years after Wilfrid and Acca had brought the Catholic faith to Hexham and the Tyne Valley, the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1537 saw the Abbey become the parish church of Hexham, a role it mainly fulfils today.

In common with modern ecumenical thinking, however, the Abbey, rightly regarded by Christians of all faiths as an important and significant centre of worship, is opening its doors to non-Anglican pilgrims who wish to hold services there and in March this year, the first public Catholic Mass since the 16th century Reformation was said in the Abbey as part of a pilgrimage to Hexham to celebrate the Year of Faith launched by Pope Benedict prior to his retirement.

While smaller services have been said in the Abbey by Catholics and other non-Anglican religious groups, including a visit by Greek Orthodox worshippers, in recent years, the service in March, concelebrated by Bishop Seamus Cunningham, of the Hexham and Newcastle Catholic Diocese, marked a new chapter in the ancient Abbey’s history and ever-adapting role as one of the major centres of religious heritage of the region.

Visit the Abbey

Hexham Abbey is open daily from 9.30am until 5pm, services and events permitting.

The Saxon crypt is opened twice a day at 11am and 3.30pm, service permitting, and guided tours of the Abbey can be arranged by prior booking.

Ring 01434 602031 or email admin@hexhamabbey.org.uk.

Town provides a broad canvas

While Hexham provides a treasure trove of riches for historians and church-going visitors, its residents and business people are keen to portray an image of the town as a forward-thinking place that is embracing the opportunities of the vibrant 21st century.

There is no greater ambassador for Hexham than artist and gallery owner Ben Haslam, whose Haslam’s of Hallgate Gallery enjoys an international reputation among artists, photographers and collectors.

Ben, himself one of the leading artists in the North East, told North East Life: ‘There are some fantastic established and new businesses in town and we want people to know how much is going on here. Yes, they will come for the historic sites and to visit the Abbey but Hexham is becoming extremely well established as one of the foremost arts locations of the region.

‘The town has an excellent book festival and food festival and the Abbey stages its wonderful Festival of Music and Arts in September.

‘Every town worries when a retailer closes, especially with the downturn hitting high streets these days, but shops don’t stay vacant for long in Hexham and there are some very interesting new retailers making a go of it here. By all means come to Hexham to enjoy the heritage and history but also take time to see the exciting new developments that are taking place.’

Haslams of Hallgate stage regular exhibitions of their own. The most recent, “Words in a Frame”, features paintings, creative writing and poetry. You might just catch it until the beginning of June.

Ben Haslam is one of the leading new generation of watercolour painters in Britain. His dramatic paintings are made on location in all weathers or developed in the studio.

He studied Fine Art at Salford and then Newcastle Polytechnic, graduating in 1984. Ben has worked as art advisor for the Artists and Illustrators magazine and is well known for his lectures and demonstrations on painting and drawing.

The Photographic and Print Gallery features work by leading professionals and offers a high quality digital scanning and printing service as well as a bespoke picture framing service.

To contact Ben Haslam ring 01434 603884.

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