“Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess”, trilled the late, indefatigable comedian Ken Dodd. We all know that happy feeling but how to quantify it is debatable. This hasn’t stopped Hexham in Northumberland from being voted Britain’s happiest place to live, according to a recent survey. Indeed, the market town, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, must be extremely content as it gained this cheerful accolade in 2019, too. The study, by online property company Rightmove, considered factors such as community spirit, friendliness and local amenities. I visited the town to find out its secret.
Easing myself into an awkward parking space in busy Beaumont Street (which leads to Hexham Abbey) and in the process holding up several cars behind me, not an impatient horn was tooted. This boded well. Emboldened, I walked down Market Street and, despite the bitterly cold weather, deliberately caught people’s eyes; all smiled back. Even the woman setting up a window display proffered a grin.
“We don’t know we’re born, living here,” declared Lindsey Birney who, with husband Austin, runs children’s toyshop Mr Wolf (mrwolf.uk.com). “It’s such a lovely relaxed lifestyle.” Until recently they ran another branch in central Newcastle. “From a business point of view, it was brilliant, but from a personal point of view it was a constant worry,” she said, citing the commuting, parking, delivery uncertainties and grumpy customers. “We never have disgruntled customers here,” she beamed. Well, it’s hard not to smile when shelves beckon with whoopee cushions, invisible ink pens, finger puppets and hairy orangutans. One local solicitor brings her cup of coffee into the shop and just wanders around to de-stress.
Mr Wolf is one of a clutch of independent shops in the town, such as Penfax, with its quill pens and handmade paper, Gaia, a colourful grotto of New Age-y items, and homeopathic Twenty First Century Herbs. At Cogito Books (cogitobooks.com), where the slogan “A good book is the best of friends” runs across one of the walls, customers chatted on first-name terms with the owners. With more time, I could have nabbed a personal consultation to help me choose six books I might otherwise have overlooked.
In the abbey, which lies at the heart of the town, I had barely taken off my gloves when volunteer steward Marian Duke greeted me and apologised for the lack of floral decorations. “We’ve just taken down the Remembrance Day displays and can’t put up any more until after Advent.” (Church of England rules, apparently.) Dating largely from the 12th and 13th centuries, the abbey is a modest affair but all the more friendly for that. “Now, what else can I tell you,” Marian fretted after she’d already filled me in about the canons’ Night Stair, the Anglo-Saxon crypt, and the elaborately carved wooden seat made for Queen Victoria when she opened Newcastle Central Station. Why was it in Hexham Abbey? I never discovered, as I’d booked lunch across the road at The Beaumont’s buzzy bistro (thebeaumonthexham.co.uk).
Owner Roger Davy, whose phone had been pinging all day with comments from friends (often in the south) on Hexham’s happy crown, takes it all with a wry smile. “It’s a bit of fun,” he said, “but we’re probably noticeably happier than Londoners, although ‘content’ is perhaps a better word.” Born in Hexham and having worked in hospitality in London, he and his family returned to take over the Victorian townhouse hotel in 2016. “It was a noticeably slower pace of life – whether [people were] driving their cars, walking down the street or sitting down in a restaurant. People meet their friends in here and can take three hours over a cup of coffee!” He’s too diplomatic to say this isn’t necessarily good for business – and he’s very much a hands-on owner, taking table orders and hotel bookings as we chat.
A lot of people have lived in Hexham for a very long time which creates a strong sense of community, he points out. “They look out for each other. They’ve a lot invested in the town.” During the pandemic’s lockdown, the hotel took in key workers and charged the NHS just £15 per night to cover laundry costs.
French-born Greg Bureau, who runs Bouchon Bistrot in Gilesgate (bouchonbistrot.co.uk), was amazed at the support the community gave his restaurant when he switched, temporarily, to running a takeaway business. “It’s a market town mentality – they want local businesses to stay.” He took advantage of lockdown to realise his plans to expand the restaurant with a roof terrace overlooking the abbey and the bowling green. Unlike many hospitality businesses, he didn’t lose any staff. “I wouldn’t still be here 14 years after opening if the town was not a friendly place,” he adds.
Julie Caris, whose family has lived in Hexham several generations, finds the notion of the town being rated top for happiness comical. “Do we all go round the streets beaming?!” she laughs. In her early 40s and with a four-year-old daughter, she feels Hexham is a great place for young families – safe, little traffic, good schools, dozens of baby and toddler groups – and the retired – “my Mum has the best social life: yoga, bridge, lunches” – but lacks excitement for the 20- and 30-somethings.
But maybe the slow pace (according to Julie Caris, the town has an inexplicable number of yoga classes) is the charm of the town. As Lindsey Birney put it: “It’s a town to bimble [walk or travel at a leisurely pace] around in.”
It was through bimbling that I ended up in Wetherspoons pub just off Hexham’s Market Place. The Art Deco exterior of the building had caught my eye, originally built as the 1930s Forum cinema. Now the vast bar sits in the former stalls amidst intricate grill-work panels, Egyptian-style columns, and a magnificent proscenium arch. What a gem!
My biggest smile, however, came when I returned to my car, considerably over the permitted two hours (and having already moved it once), to find no parking ticket.
Five reasons to visit Hexham
Dating largely from the 12th and 13th centuries with medieval wooden panel paintings, Anglo-Saxon crypt, eighth-century stone Acca’s cross and excellent Big Story Exhibition (hexhamabbey.org.uk; free, donations welcome).
From the 18th-century stone-arched bridge across the River Tyne, below the town on the north side, head upstream through Tyne Green Country Park for a couple of miles to the spot where the North Tyne and South Tyne rivers meet in a dancing foam of water.
Explore Market Street, Gilesgate, St Mary’s Chare and Hallstile Bank for independent shops from antiques, toys and homewares, to an artisan bakery and books.
In the heart of the town, bordered by the Abbey grounds and Beaumont Street, this mix of formal gardens and bandstand, woodland and lawns, with a skate park and children’s playground, is both a popular meeting place and tranquil spot to rest.
The Roman emperor’s eponymous wall is four miles to the north of the town, with forts such as Chesters, Housesteads and Vindolanda within a 20-minute drive.