Stones hold clue to past, present and future of Hexham

PUBLISHED: 13:43 30 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:07 20 February 2013

Stones hold clue to past, present and future of Hexham

Stones hold clue to past, present and future of Hexham

Tom Fennelly steps back in time to find clues as to what the future holds for historic Hexham and the Tyne Valley

Empire-hungry Romans, pillaging Vikings, early Christians, warlike Welsh, marauding Scots, Border Reivers, Jacobites and rioters have all played a part in shaping Hexham. Each has left a mark in one way or another on this most attractive Northumberland market town.

At the heart of the town stands the impressive Abbey and much of the story of Hexhams past, present and future is bound up in and around its recycled stones. Despite its proximity to Hadrians Wall and its obvious role as a centre for modern day explorers of all things Roman, Hexham has no real claim to Roman origins.

It lies on the south side of the River Tyne, 20 miles west of Newcastle, and proudly proclaims itself as the `capital of Tynedale, although the River Tyne really only begins a mile to the east of the town, where it is formed by the merging of the North Tyne and South Tyne rivers.

One of the regions first recorded battles took place north of Hexham against the Welsh, who were a great enemy of the Kingdom of Northumbria in early times, Inhabitants of northern Britain (Britons), had been Welsh speakers who were driven west by the early Northumbrians (Anglo-Saxons) who settled here in the 6th century AD. The Welsh killed King Edwin, one of Northumbrias most powerful rulers. His successor was King Oswald, a Christian king who later became a saint.

In 635 AD the Welsh marched to fight Oswald on high ground which became known as Heavenfield. Oswald placed a cross in the centre of the battlefield and led his men in prayer for victory. The Welsh were easily beaten and Oswald believed that his victory confirmed his Christian faith and decided to set about converting his largely Pagan kingdom to Christianity.

The story of Hexham does not really begin until 674 AD, three centuries after the Romans left, when a priory and monastery was founded by the Northumbrian saint and bishop Wilfrid.

Educated on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, St Wilfrid travelled to Rome and was inspired by the grandeur of European churches. Thanks to his vision, Hexham Abbey was one of the first buildings in Anglo-Saxon Britain to make full use of stone, much of which ironically came from the ruins of Hadrians Wall and the nearby Roman fort at Corbridge.

Most of the present church dates from around 1170-1250 with the choir, north and south transepts and the cloisters in the Early English Gothic style of architecture. The east end was rebuilt in 1860 and the nave in 1907.

Wilfrids Benedictine abbey once had cathedral status at the centre of a see stretching from the Tees to the River Aln. By the time of the Norman Conquest, Hexham and the abbey was part of the see of Durham, but in the reign of Henry I both were confiscated and given to the Archbishops of York, whose tenure prevailed until 1837.

The town prospered and in 1113 it was decided to start a new Augustinian priory church and monastery on the site of the ruined St Wilfrids building. The only remaining part of the work of St Wilfrid is the Saxon crypt beneath the abbey floor.

In 875 AD. the town and abbey were largely destroyed by the plundering Vikings but some 400 years later it was the raids from over border in Scotland which left an even greater mark on the pages of Hexhams history.

Most notably in 1296 the Scots laid the town to waste, burning the abbey and school. In 1297 Scottish leader William Wallace of Braveheart fame settled in the town, allowing some rebuilding to take place. In 1312 he was followed by Robert the Bruce, who demanded 2,000 to spare the town and monastery from further destruction and in another great raid, in 1346, King David of Scotland plundered and burned the abbey prior to the Battle of Nevilles Cross, near Durham.

By 1515 Hexham was a lawless town and following the English Reformation Henry VIII to sent investigators to the town and they were forcibly sent back to the capital. A few months late the Kings army returned with force and the local powerful families like the Percys were replaced with now familiar names of the Fenwicks and the Blacketts.

Another bloody episode in Hexhams turbulent past occurred on March 9th 1761. While local magistrates were balloting names for conscription in the Moot Hall, a crowd of 5,000 angry protesters gathered outside in the Market Place. Two units of militia were summoned and after missiles were thrown a militiaman was shot dead with another mortally wounded. The troops opened fire and up to 50 men and women rioters were killed.
Today, Hexham is a popular market town, attracting visitors from across the North East and much further afield.

Tuesday is market day and The Shambles (a medieval name for a place where meat was butchered and sold) is the covered market area built in 1766 by Sir Walter Blackett. At the east end of the market place stands is the Moot Hall a mediaeval gatehouse which served as a courthouse until 1838. The Moot Hall is used for local events and there is a ground floor art gallery.

Behind the Moot Hall on Hallgates is the Old Gaol which was one of the first purpose-built jails in England. A Grade I listed Scheduled Monument it was built in 1330 by the Archbishop of York. The only inmates now are tourists who come to visit the Old Gaol museum.

Queens Hall was originally built in 1866 as a Corn Exchange and Town Hall. In the past the hall has included a bank, a ballroom and cinema but is now home to the Queens Hall Arts Centre, Hexham Library and a cafe.

These fine old landmark buildings stand at the centre of the main shopping area which features all the usual town centre brand stores but is crammed with narrow lanes and passageways just waiting to be discovered. There is a diverse range of independent shops offering everything from quality local food produce, antique dealers, cafes and bistros including some of the best coffee and cakes in the whole of the county, and it now has an arts quarter wherein lies a great future for Hexham.

First Arts Town in the UK

Hexham has just become the first town in the country to declare itself as an Arts Town and an increasing number of art galleries and creative businesses, local groups and community groups are collaborating to add another dimension to Hexhams appeal as a visitor destination
Haslams of Hallgate Gallery is one of several independent galleries that have been set up in Hexham at the beginning of the recession in 2008.

It has been opened by established artist Ben Haslam, who specialises in mainly regional landscapes and seascapes. Ben is passionate about the new arts movement in the town and sees the burgeoning creative quarter providing a significant boost to the local economy.

He says: Through difficult times we are thriving and have worked hard to establish our growing reputation for displaying high quality art and craft by leading makers from the region and beyond. We are also encouraging local people to join in workshop sessions Hexham and we are working with the Hexham Community Partnership and Hexham Arts Forum to build on the vibrancy and vitality which flows from a wide range of activities from fine art, photography, leatherwork, wood crafts, jewellery, dance, music and drama.

Ben sees the accolade of Arts Town as an exciting opportunity for the creative industries and community arts in the town to further establish Hexham as a culturally interesting and attractive place to work and to visit.

Haslams of Hallgate is located in the the attractive historic centre linked to the main car park and leading to Wentworth Place is home to three other galleries as well as three cafe bistros displaying art. All the businesses are jointly working to develop the area as the new Arts Quartre of Hexham.

Saxon Leather is another of the arts and crafts newcomers and Andy Bates has already established a growing reputation for bespoke leather work for museums, television and individual collectors.

His airy Wentworth Place workshop has a small display of fascinating items such as reproduction Anglo-Saxon leather armour for the Discovery Channel, examples of Hexham Tans commemorating the towns famous glove-making past and a testimonial from Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry, who commissioned a rather risqu handbag of his own design.

Using traditional tools and skills, Andy, a former archaeologist and policeman, uses the very best leather from a variety of animals including pigskins and deer to create anything from a camera case to a drinking flask and bigger pieces.

The town also hosts a number of festivals including the annual Hexham Abbey Festival, the Hexham Gathering, the Selefest, the Book Festival, the Tynedale Music Festival and the Arts and Crafts Fair.

The Arts Forum has ambitions for a major new arts venue, a distinct marketable brand logo, town centre murals, and a specially-commissioned piece of public art.

Abbey at heart of community

The Hexham Abbey Project is an exciting 3millon development based around the adjoining historic Carnaby Building, which was once part of the mediaeval church site until the dissolution of the monasteries.

The scheme sub-titles itself as revealing the past, enhancing the present, enriching the future, and is an ambitious and imaginative plan to write a new chapter in the Abbeys rich history and heritage and to re-emphasise its importance and place at the heart of the Hexham community.

It has already attracted a 1.8 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and 800,000 from other sources including Northumberland County Council, benefactors, patrons of the abbey, individual family pledges.

The Abbey has just launched a massive public appeal for the remaining 400,000 to turn the building, which until recently was used as council offices, into a major new visitor centre incorporating an interactive gallery, interpretative displays, large community spaces, cafeteria and toilets, and education areas. There will also be a herb garden and an outdoor performance area.

The Appeal President is the Duchess of Northumberland. Jane Gibson, the Abbeys Heritage Development Manager says: It is important for everyone in Hexham to get on board with the Abbey project. We want it to become even more embedded in the community as it will be a tremendous asset for the town and area.

We are looking for idea and comments from local people to help the design team to interpret the past and we want to encourage everyone to get involved in the fundraising appeal

Anyone who wants to know more can contact Jane on 01434 6022031 or e-mail

With so much going on in Hexham and the Tyne Valley, its impossible to include a mention for every organisation and event in the limited space of the magazine. Leave a comment below

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