England’s somewhat undiscovered nooks and crannies make for some enticing exploration and travel writer Laura did just this when she headed to Hexham in Northumberland.
Sometimes a place and a person become inextricably linked. One of my favourite corners of England, Hexham in Northumberland, came to mean ‘Auntie’.
My aunt Denise moved to the historic market town when I was a teenager. She had planned to stay for 12 months before moving south again, but 20 years later she was still there, loving it.
I was sceptical at first. It was very cold compared to the warm Home Counties climes I was used to as a kid. We had to watch TV clutching hot water bottles. But as the years went on, I began to appreciate the real ales, the non-gastro pubs, the old-fashioned shops (a butcher, a watchmaker) and the country walks on my many visits. Even the freezing weather felt like an old friend.
In January this year, we lost Auntie, at the too-soon age of 64, following an illness. The colour went out of Hexham for a while, as if the brightness had been turned down a notch.
Four months on, I still feel deep sadness and would do anything to have her back. But I am also determined to continue to experience the North East as she did – with enthusiasm, optimism and a sense of adventure, to allow the good memories to push through and to treasure them.
Besides, Auntie would not have been impressed at the thought of me moping around like a wet weekend.
So, here’s a celebration of Hexham’s highlights, in memory of a very special Auntie…
Down by the river: Tyne Green
This beautiful stretch of parkland runs alongside the River Tyne from Hexham Bridge. In the morning, whatever the weather, canoes and rowing boats skiff along the water, while dog walkers enjoy the view from the bank. Stroll or stop for a while with a picnic. There’s a playground and a golf course too.
A bit of history: Hexham Abbey
Originally a monastery, built in 674, the Abbey towers protectively over the town. There’s a crypt containing Roman stones, probably taken from nearby Hadrian’s Wall; the current building, with its soaring arches, was developed from the 11th century onwards. It’s a beautiful piece of heritage and ideal for a moment of quiet contemplation.
Best shop: Hares of Hexham
Hexham is great for independent shops and my favourite is Hares, tucked away on the corner of Fore Street. A proper old-fashioned sweet emporium and tobacconist, its toffee bonbons are pure chewy goodness.
Best pub: Dipton Mill Inn
Two miles south of Hexham is cosy Dipton Mill, a walkers’ pub surrounded by woodland, with its own brewery. Comfort food is the speciality, from mince and dumplings to sticky sponges. The Ploughman’s comes with up to three cheeses – there’s even a ‘cheese menu’ to choose from. Sit by the fire in winter and, when the sun shines, hit the back garden.
Best restaurant: Bouchon
Bouchon is a consistently brilliant bistro on Gilesgate, run by the ever-welcoming Greg. The menu changes, but among the best staples are gooey French onion soup or garlic snails to start. Then there’s always good fish for main, steak frites or duck confit. And for dessert the crème caramel with langues du chat is superb. Overall great value for lunch or dinner – book ahead if you can.