Driving into Hexham, I cross a sturdy stone bridge spanning the Tyne. The satnav is set for the Market Place, but forget about parking there or in the short-stay.
In fact, I’m forced back down the hill to the huge car park by Waitrose. Not many spaces here either. Maybe everyone is flocking to Hexham after the property website Rightmove announced this week that it’s the Happiest Town in Britain.
Or maybe, it’s just a normal weekday: Northumberland is a huge county and this is the only realistic place to do your shopping if you live between Newcastle and Carlisle.
Convivial: Hexham’s Market Place. The market town was a frontline settlement in the medieval skirmishes and wars between Scotland and England
Fortunately, it’s only a short walk uphill on Hallgate from the car park to the Market Place, enough to establish the demographics of this northern market town.
Hallgate is a winding row of fine Georgian houses — there’s a memorial mason, chic hairdresser’s, three cafes, four art galleries. And Waitrose.
The huge, impregnable cube of the old gaol in the centre of town is a reminder of a more turbulent history.
This was a frontline settlement in the medieval skirmishes and wars between Scotland and England.
That noble, heroic William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace terrorised Northumbria in 1297 — something Mel Gibson managed to leave out of his movie — though the monks of Hexham Abbey struck a deal to save the town.
If today’s residents are ecstatic at their Rightmove award, they are hiding it well. The newsagent hasn’t read the newspapers describing Hexham’s triumph.
But at the Grateful Bread artisan baker in Market Street, I’m told: ‘Aye, they’re happy enough around here.’
An informative welcome: Hexham boasts chic shops, a bustling High Street and the ancient kingdom of Northumbria on its doorstep – as well as rows of fine Georgian houses
I buy one of the shop’s fine sourdough loaves, noting that the £4 price tag wouldn’t be out of place in the second happiest town on Rightmove’s list, swanky Richmond in South-West London.
The story that made the biggest difference to the town isn’t the two Rightmove wins (they also won the Happy gong in 2019), but Country Life’s description of Hexham as ‘the best market town in Britain’. That was in 2005.
Some residents describe the property market here as BCL and ACL — Before and After Country Life.
And the houses on offer are a far cry from the ‘small, spare, dour’ cottage the writer Joan Aiken encountered when she first came here in the 1930s. But like many southerners, she stayed.
I do find some people who aren’t overly happy: estate agents. That might seem odd. After all, a major property website has just given their town a big shot in the arm.
At Pattinson estate agents, situated on the wonderfully named Priestpopple, manager and senior valuer Marc Hydelman tells me prices ‘have shot up. And as an estate agent I ought to be pleased — we’re up 60 per cent on last year. Crazy.’ He is also happy he moved here from Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire, 29 years ago.
So why the unhappiness? ‘Supply can’t keep up with demand,’ says Mr Hydelman. As a result, you will struggle to find any properties for sale in Hexham town centre.
‘Lack of supply is hitting both rentals and sales,’ agrees Ed Seymour of Foster Maddison. ‘Some vendors are being aspirational with prices, but good stock is selling fast — often over the asking price. We have had more best and final offers at closing dates than we have ever had — it sounds great, but the volume of sales is still down hugely’.
Hexham is handsome and agreeable. That said, I can name half a dozen English market towns I’ve visited in the past three years alone that can rival it
Hexham is handsome and agreeable. That said, I can name half a dozen English market towns I’ve visited in the past three years alone that can rival it: Malvern, Tetbury, Shaftesbury, Uppingham, Diss, Market Harborough.
What you don’t get in those towns is an average price of under £300,000 for a house. And you also don’t get the ancient kingdom of Northumbria on your doorstep.
As the winter light fades, I drive north to a section of Hadrian’s Wall at Carrawburgh. Here, sunken in a farmer’s field, are the remains of a temple dedicated to the Roman god Mithras.
It’s not the most impressive Roman ruin. But then I gaze north and south and see England’s most magnificent county stretching as far as the eye can see. There’s not a soul in sight. And that makes a lot of people happy.
On the market… Cheery homes
Bellingham: There are two bedrooms in this cottage in Bellingham, which is 16 miles north of Hexham and close to the Northumberland National Park. Pattinson, 01434 605 376. £165,000
Hexham: This four-bedroom house is on Laurel Road on the outskirts of the town. There is a single garage and the property is surrounded by woodland. Red Hot Property, 01434 601 800. £375, 000
Fourstones: The Gables has five bedrooms, sweeping country views and is a ten-minute drive from Hexham. The home is in the village of Fourstones. Finest Properties, 01434 622 234. £565,000