A walk round and about the abbey and market town of Hexham.
Distance 3.7 miles (6km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 590ft (180m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Town streets, lanes and woodland paths, 4 stiles
Landscape Market town and small wooded valleys
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL43 Hadrian's Wall
Start/finish NY 939641
Dog friendliness Can run free in woods of Cowgarth Dene and Wydon Burn
Parking Pay-and-display car park, next to supermarket
Public toilets At car park, by tourist information centre
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1 From the car park (not the supermarket end) take the exit between the tourist information centre and the café to follow a narrow street past the Old Gaol. Go under the arches of the Moot Hall and enter the Market Place. Take a tour of The Sele, the park grounds surrounding Hexham Abbey, before aiming roughly south west across them to the Queen Hall on Beaumont Street.
2 Turn right along here to reach Benson's Monument then continue straight ahead on an unnamed street. After taking the first turning on the right ignore Elvaston Road on the left, but instead go straight ahead on a tarred lane that leads to the foot of the wooded Cowgarth Dene.
3 When you get to a bridge, turn off into the woodland where the now unsurfaced track crosses a footbridge and climbs out to a little park at the edge of a modern housing estate. Follow the woodland edge, then a track past a water treatment works.
4 On nearing a housing estate, go through a gate on the left then double-back left on a path by some houses. Where the path turns right, climb some steps on to a track that runs along the north side of Wydon Burn Reservoir, now filled with reeds and tall grasses, not water.
5 Turn left along the lane then, at Intake farm, turn right along a path that leads into the thick woodland of Wydon Burn's upper reaches. A narrow path continues through the woods to reach the lane at Causey Hill where you turn left past the campsite to a junction with a road known as The Yarridge. The modern building you'll see here is part of the Hexham Racecourse.
6 Turn left along the road and go straight ahead at the crossroads.
7 Beyond Black House a stile on the left marks the start of a downhill, cross-field path into Hexham. Beyond a step stile the path veers right to round some gorse bushes before resuming its course alongside the left field edge.
8 Just before reaching a whitewashed cottage go over the stile on the left and follow the road down into the town. Turn left along the shopping street at the bottom, then right along St Mary's Chare, back to the Market Place.
It was ad 674 and the Romans had been gone over 200 years. Their wall lay crumbling on the green hills to the north, high above the valley of the Tyne. These were the early days of Christianity, and the first monasteries and abbeys were being established. Queen Etheldra of Northumbria had given Bishop Wilfred the land by the river and here, at Hexham, he would build his priory.
Wilfred had travelled far and wide, including to Rome, and had been impressed by the splendour and majesty of many European churches. His would be a magnificent one with 'crypts of beautifully finished stone? walls of wonderful height and length'. Many of the stones in his great building were Roman, removed from the fort at Corbridge. The monastery became a cathedral and a renowned centre of learning. However, these were dark days and places like this were rich pickings for Viking raiders. The priory was to be attacked on many occasions, but in ad 875 Halfdene the Dane, who had ransacked much of the county, finally burned it down. Although attempts were made, it wasn't until 1113, when the Augustinians were awarded the land and started the present abbey, that it was restored to its former majesty.
The abbey buildings survived Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries of the 1530s because they were was also used as a parish church. Instead of being demolished, Hexham was embellished and extended. The original crypt was retained intact too, and is now surely one of the finest Saxon structures to be found anywhere in Britain. While the nave and transepts date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, Dobson's East End and Temple Moore's nave were constructed between 1850 and 1910.
In the shadow of the abbey, and also constructed with the help of Roman masonry, are the 14th-century Moot Hall and also the Manor Office, which was the first purpose-built gaol in Britain. The two buildings will be the first points of interest you'll see on the walk. Through the arch of the Moot Hall you come to the Market Square, which in 1761 became the scene of a major tragedy. Angry lead miners from Allendale, who were objecting to their conscription to the local militia, descended on Hexham in protest. On this spot they were read the Riot Act. Fighting broke out and, by the end of the day, over 300 miners were injured and 50 had been killed. The North Yorkshire Militia, who were responsible for the atrocity, were subsequently known as the Hexham Butchers.
Past Benson's Monument the walk comes to the edge of the old part of town and side-steps most of the new by climbing the southern hillsides along a wooded dell, known as Cowgarth Dene. The little stream here provided water for the monks of the priory. At the ominously named Black House you're at the top of the walk and can see Hexham and the valley that Wilfred inherited.
Great Chesters, known to the Romans as Cilurnum and set on the banks of the North Tyne near Chollerford, is a wonderfully preserved cavalry fort with a fine museum founded by keen archaeologist John Clayton.
At the County Hotel on Priestpopple in the heart of Hexham you can enjoy morning coffee or dine well at their Cromwell Restaurant where they use prime produce, sourced wherever possible from local farms.
St Wilfrid's Seat, a 1,300-year-old frith (sanctuary) stool from the original priory was sculpted from a block of stone and survived the Danish attacks. Some believe it to have been the coronation throne of the early Northumbrian kings, though it may well have been a bishops' throne. You'll find it in the middle of the choir in Hexham Abbey.