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Monday, November 29, 2021

The secrets of Britain’s happiest town

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

Hexham Abbey

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).

Riverside walk 

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. 

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