The adorable market town of Hexham is a short march from Hadrian’s Wall and was built around an abbey founded by the Anglo-Saxons.
The abbey’s earliest architecture has been preserved in the crypt, which was constructed 1,300 years ago with stone recycled from a Roman fort.
Hexham Abbey presides over a photogenic market place, at the heart of a shopping area dotted with family-run stores.
The 14th-century prison close by is believed to be the oldest in the country and has a museum exploring the violent history of a town that for hundreds of years was beset by border raiders and warring armies.
Hexham is perfectly placed to see the many forts and archaeological sites along Hadrian’s Wall, as well as the remote moors of the Northumberland National Park.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Hexham:
1. Hexham Abbey
Remodelled from the 12th century but with a much older Anglo-Saxon crypt, Hexham Abbey needs at least a couple of hours as there’s loads to see.
That Saxon crypt has barely changed in 1,300 years and is a holdover from the original church, built almost completely with spolia from the lost Roman town a few miles downriver at Corbridge.
Roman carvings can be seen at every turn in the crypt, from pagan dedications to vegetal patterns.
Upstairs, see the Frith Stool, which is also thought to be Saxon, as well as a masterful Perpendicular Gothic rood screen separating the choir from the nave.
In the chancel, near the Leschman Chapel is a beautiful set of painted panels dating from the 1400s and representing Christ, the Virgin, the Twelve Apostles and the Dance of Death.
There’s more Roman stonework at the bottom of the Night Stair where you’ll find a massive memorial slab for a Roman standard bearer killed in the 1st century AD.
2. Hadrian’s Wall
The northern limit of the Roman Empire passes close by Hexham and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Started in 122 AD, Hadrian’s Wall was a titanic undertaking, with a full-sized fort every five miles, as well as garrisoned milecastles that were separated by two manned turrets.
Remarkably, large fragments of the wall and its forts remain, and can be discovered on the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path, which links the west and east coasts of Northern England.
There’s an avalanche of Roman history within minutes of Hexham.
We’ll outline two unmissable places below.
But Walltown Crags and the Roman Army Museum also deserve a look, as does Housesteads Roman Fort at Bardon Mill and the excavated Roman Town at Corbridge.
All of these awe-inspiring sites are a comfortable drive from Hexham.
3. Northumberland National Park
The most northern national park in England is six miles from Hexham and has its headquarters in the town.
Hadrian’s Wall weaves through the park, which in its southern regions is made up of rambling moorland.
Travel north and the terrain becomes hillier as you enter the Cheviot Hills, the traditional border between England and Scotland.
To the west, the Kelder Forest is officially the remotest place in England.
Being so far flung, the Northumberland National Park has been awarded Dark Sky Park status and is the largest of its kind in Europe.
Cawfields, a former quarry on Hadrian’s Wall, is an official Dark Sky Discovery site, with clean views of the night sky far from any sources of light pollution.
An obligatory day trip, Vindolanda is one of the most significant Roman archaeological sites north of the Alps.
From 85 AD to 370 AD this was an auxiliary fort a mile south of Hadrian’s Wall.
The fort was rebuilt nine times in that period, and identifiable among these ruins are the granary, barracks, commanding officer’s residence and headquarters.
Astonishingly you can also discover the remains of a settlement outside the fort’s walls, where there’s a tavern, bathhouse, shops and homes along a central street.
This enormous site is still being excavated, and in 1973 yielded the postcard-sized wooden Vindolanda Tablets (now at the British Museum). Dating from the turn of the 2nd century these were the oldest handwritten documents discovered in Britain up to that point.
The museum at the foot of the hill brims with spellbinding discoveries like tools, votive artefacts, carved wood, weapons, leather shoes, pottery and jewellery.
5. Chesters Roman Fort
Britain’s most complete Roman cavalry fort is a mere ten minutes north of Hexham.
In the early 19th century Nathaniel Clayton, the owner of the Chesters House and Estate, where the fort lies, excavated these ruins only to use them for a landscaped romantic park.
Fortunately the artefacts brought to light in the project were put into safekeeping and form the basis for a museum that has just reopened.
Nathaniel’s son John removed the landscaping, laying bear the remnants of the officers’ quarters, steam room and baths you can see now.
The museum has a sensational collection of architectural elements and stelae, most of which are clearly legible, as well as coins, pottery, buckles, a cavalry sword and hipposandals, worn by horses to protect hooves.
6. Hexham Old Gaol
Believed to be the oldest purpose-built prison in England, the Old Gaol can be traced back to 1333 and held prisoners from the old county of Hexhamshire and the Middle March Borders region.
There’s a neat museum inside, mapping the history of the Borders, where raiding families or “Reivers” would wreak havoc in Medieval times.
You can be restrained in the stocks and pore over a wealth of artefacts relating to border justice.
The Border Library Collection meanwhile is a mine of poetry, music and literature on the culture and history of the English-Scottish border.
The Old Gaol can be reached through the Moothall arch off the historic Market Place.
The Moothall is from around 1400 and was built as a home, court (where prisoners at the Old Gaol would stand trial) and office for the bailiff of the Archbishop of York, and opens for special exhibitions.
7. Queen’s Hall
Hexham’s main performing arts venue, as well as the town’s tourist information centre, library and a cafe are all under one roof at the newly refurbished Queen’s Hall (1866). This resplendent early-Victorian building is seconds from the abbey and fronts the Abbey Grounds and Sele Park.
The auditorium has a capacity of 350, and draws people from around Northumberland for its programme of drama, live music, dance, comedy as well as screenings for independent films.
The box office is open Monday to Saturday, as well as an hour prior to any performance.
8. Abbey Grounds and Sele Park
Right in the middle of Hexham there’s a group of three adjoining parks, adding up to 20 acres.
This green space is made up of the grounds of Hexham Abbey, the Sele and the Hexham House Grounds.
The Sele was first opened to the public in the middle of the 18th century and has been owned by the council since 1908, while the Abbey Grounds opened in 1911 and the grounds of Hexham House in 1928. This space has a cute early 20th-century bandstand, as well as a children’s play area and skate park.
The profuse mature trees are spectacular in autumn, while the Christmas lights bring a touch of magic in December.
9. Hexham Railway Station
In 2017 the author and historian Simon Jenkins listed Hexham Railway Station as one of the best in Britain.
It’s a fantastic way to arrive in the town, with Victorian metal and glass platform canopies, hanging flower baskets and columns painted blue and white.
In the waiting room there’s a black marble fireplace with orthoceras and cephalopod fossils dating back 400 million years.
The station is one of the oldest in the world, having been founded in 1835 to connect the docks on the Tyne at Blaydon with lead mines in the North Pennines.
10. Shambles Market
Under the gaze of the abbey in the Market Place, is a Grade II* colonnade dating to 1766. The Shambles, as it’s known, is packed with market stalls every Tuesday, when you can peruse the stalls for provisions, a snack or something special.
There’s regional meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, as well as plants, confectionery, bread and a selection of hot food like artisan burgers.
One regular stall trades Spanish specialities like sherry, olive oil, romesco sauce and aioli.
The farmers’ market is in town on the second and fourth Saturday of the month, and has an enticing spread of charcuterie, poultry, special breads, cheeses, seasonal honey, preserves and arts and crafts from around Northumberland.
11. Aydon Castle
Almost totally intact, Aydon Castle is one of the most complete examples of a 13th-century manor house in the UK. The house was inhabited until 1966 and is now looked after by English Heritage.
It began life as a plush home, but soon became fortified due to deteriorating relations with Scotland.
The 14th century was especially turbulent for Aydon Castle, when the property was pillaged and burnt by the Scots in 1315, retaken by English rebels in 1317 and then occupied once more by the Scots in 1346. The location could hardly be more beautiful, in a clearing surrounded by Northumberland woodland.
The interior has an amazing state of preservation, and is still fitted with carved 13th-century fireplaces, while there’s a peaceful walled orchard outside where you can take a picnic.
12. The Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre
A recommended first stop in the Northumberland National Park is this newly opened visitor centre amid the craggy scenery of the Whin Sill.
The discovery centre blends permanent and temporary exhibitions with events spaces, a youth hostel, business hub, shop and cafe making dishes with local produce.
In the state-of-the-art permanent exhibition you can get to grips with the landscape’s geology, natural species and human history via interactive stations, imaginative artwork and audiovisual displays.
In summer 2018 there was a temporary showing explaining how technology is being used to deepen our understanding of the natural world.
The Sill also has a grassland roof, mimicking the countryside of the Whin Sill and growing wildflowers species that occur naturally in the National Park.
13. Hexham Racecourse
Possibly the most scenic place to watch horseracing in England, Hexham Racecourse is roosted on a hill almost 250 metres above sea level.
To the north you can see over the Tyne Valley, while the North Pennines rise majestically to the south.
This is a National Hunt (jump) course, staging around 17 fixtures a year, falling on weekday evenings and weekend afternoons.
In late-June there’s Ladies’ Day, when the course sets up a champagne and prosecco bar, serves strawberries and cream and even hires a team of fashion experts to award prizes like “best dressed couple”, “best dressed lady” and “best hat”.
14. Falconry Days
Less a zoo than a bird of prey activity centre, Falconry Days trains and flies around 70 birds of prey, and is against keeping these creatures in cages for the public to stare at.
So the way to see the centre’s inhabitants is on tours, encounters and experiences.
These range from a simple “Meet the Birds Tour” to more involved activities, in which you’ll spend hours in the wilderness of the Northumberland National Park, handling, feeding and flying a peregrine falcon, barn owl, tawny owl, buzzard, kestrel and goshawk.
There are also species specific activities like an owl encounter, and falconry experiences lasting anything from an hour to a full day.
15. Hexham Book Festival
Taking over multiple venues like Hexham Abbey and the Queen’s Hall, the Hexham Book Festival is a literary event across ten days at the turn of May.
In the last few years alone guests have included the novelists Melissa Harrison and Kate Mosse, as well as public figures like the former governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King, politicians Vince Cable and Harriet Harman and the broadcasters Jeremy Vine, Jenni Murray and Evan Davis.
On the programme each year are talks by some 50 authors, both new and long-established, together with Shakespeare and creative writing workshops, practical advice for budding authors and film screenings.