As I drive into Hexham, I pass a strong stone bridge that spans the Tyne. I have my satnav set to the Market Place. However, it doesn’t mention parking or short-stay.
Actually, it’s a steep hill that forces me to return down to the large Waitrose car park. There aren’t many parking spaces. Hexham is now the Happiest Place in Britain, according to Rightmove.
Perhaps it’s just another weekday. Northumberland, a large county, is where you can shop if your home is between Newcastle and Carlisle.
Convivial. Hexham’s Market Place. This market town served as a settlement of first line in medieval wars between England and Scotland.
It’s just a quick walk from the Market Place to Hallgate, which is enough for you to get a sense of the population in this northern market place.
Hallgate is a winding row of fine Georgian houses — there’s a memorial mason, chic hairdresser’s, three cafes, four art galleries. Waitrose.
An example of turbulent times is seen in the large, impassible cube that used to be the Old Gaol.
It was the site of a fortified settlement during medieval wars between England and Scotland.
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.
Residents today are not happy about the Rightmove award. They are just hiding it. Hexham’s success is not being described by the newssagent.
However, the Grateful Bread bakery artisan in Market Street told me: “Aye, they are happy enough around there.”
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.
It wasn’t Rightmove’s wins in 2019, which also brought home the Happy Gong, that have made the most impact on the town. But Country Life’s description Hexham’s as “the best British market town” is the story that has had the greatest effect. This was 2005.
Some residents describe the property market here as BCL and ACL — Before and After Country Life.
The houses available are far more spacious than the cottage Joan Aiken stayed in when she arrived here in 1930s. Like many southerners she decided to stay.
Some people aren’t too happy, however: estate agents. That might seem odd. It’s not surprising, considering that a large property site has given the town an important boost.
Pattinson estate agents is located at the delightfully named Priestpopple. Marc Hydelman (manager and senior valuer) 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.’ Crazy.’
So, why is there unhappiness? According to Mr Hydelman, ‘Supply cannot keep up with the demand.’ It is difficult to find properties in Hexham’s centre.
Ed Seymour, Foster Maddison agrees that a lack of inventory is affecting both sales and rentals. ‘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. However, there are a few English market towns that rival Hexham in my experience over the last three years.
Hexham is charming and a pleasure to be around. I am able to name a half dozen English market cities that have been visited within the past three year’s time, which I think can compete with it: Tetbury and Shaftesbury; Malvern; Uppingham, Diss; Market Harborough.
What you don’t get in those towns is an average price of under £300,000 for a house. The ancient Northumbria Kingdom is not available at your doorstep.
North, as the winter lights fade, I travel to Carrawburgh’s Hadrian Wall section. Sunken in the fields of farmers, you will find the remnants of an ancient temple to Roman God Mithras.
This is not the most striking Roman ruin. As I turn my head north, England’s most spectacular county appears before me. It’s a beautiful place with no one in it. This makes lots of people happy.
Available for sale…
Bellingham:The cottage, located 16 miles north from Hexham in Bellingham has two bedrooms. Pattinson, 01434 605 376. £165,000
Hexham:On the outskirts, of the city is this four-bedroom home. The property has a single garage. It is also surrounded by trees. Red Hot Property 01434 601 800. £375, 000
Fourstones:The Gables offers five bedrooms and stunning country views. It is only ten minutes from Hexham. You will find the home in Fourstones. Finest Properties: 01434 622 234. £565,000