On our first trip this term we went to Hexham. Although it was lovely and sunny, it was quite cold, especially with the wind! Despite the temperature, we had a lovely time exploring the town with Dr Phillippo.
After we got off the bus and Dr Phillippo had given the obligatory safety talk, we went to the Old Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. This is a grade II listed building which was built in 1684. It consists of both the school and the master’s house and was purpose built for the school which had previously operated from private houses. Various later additions are also visible on the building. Eventually, the school was closed in 1881 when it and the master’s house were converted into a private residence. More recently, it has served as local authority offices.
Although in previous years we could walk around the building, this time sadly the gate was locked so we were unable to look at it so clearly.
Next, we looked at the Old Gaol. Although we were unfortunately unable to go in as it is closed on Sundays we were still able to view the outside. The building is tall and imposing so it’s easy to imagine it intimidating prisoners. The gaol was ordered to be built in 1330 which makes it the oldest purpose-built prison in the country. The prison was used until the 1820s when a new gaol was built at Morpeth. More recently, the gaol has had a variety of different uses including a bank, a solicitors’ office, a home for the Rifle Volunteers, a billiards club and a place to firewatch in World War II. Following major and much needed repairs in the 1970s, the gaol reopened as a museum.
After the Old Gaol, we looked at and walked under the Moot Hall. The Moot Hall was originally a gatehouse guarding the Hall of the Archbishops of York. It was a heavily fortified building which was later used for the Quarter sessions of county magistrates and for meetings of the Borough’s courts. Since then it has been called the Moot Hall.
After passing under the arch of the Moot Hall, we were in the market. On the day we visited, it seemed entirely peaceful, only filled with people doing their shopping or simply walking around the town like we were. However, in contrast to this picture, Dr Phillippo told us some far more exciting stories about riots and beheadings!
Finally, we reached the final destination of our trip (aside from the entirely necessary café visit for cake and tea, of course), Hexham Abbey. The building was finished in 678 on land granted to Bishop Wilfred by Queen Etheldreda, making it one of earliest centres of Christianity in England. The Abbey, like many churches in the area, has more exciting history than might be expected, especially as it seems so peaceful today.
In 1296, for example, Scottish raiders set fire to it, causing the destruction of shrines, books and relics, while in the following year, William Wallace led another raid and destroyed what was left. In fact, some melted lead can be seen on a set of stairs in the Abbey!
Further building work took place in the 19th century, including some by John Dobson, an architect who designed vast amounts of Newcastle and the surrounding area. Finally, the nave was rebuilt in 1907-8, in the same layout as the 13th century. When inside the building, the different ages of each section are easily seen in the walls as the stone in the nave is clearly far newer.
Inside the Abbey is very beautiful, with many stained-glass windows and intricately carved screens. There are also various pictures. For example, next to the pulpit are several screens painted with pictures of local saints such as Oswald, Etheldreda and Wilfred. Near the altar are paintings of death dancing with men of varying ranks of power such as a priest, a king and an emperor. This sort of imagery shows not only that death comes to all but also how in previous times people were much more comfortable with the idea of death than we perhaps are today. Elsewhere, there are carvings of animals and people including amongst them: a sheep stealer, a pig playing bagpipes and a fox preaching to geese.
We also looked at a Roman gravestone featuring a standard bearer upon his horse in a fight with a Gaul. At first the Gaul seems to be defeated since he is prostrate on the ground while the horse rears above him. On closer examination, however, he is getting ready to gut the horse. This gravestone was found face down in the floor and originally came from Corbridge.
The two most exciting aspects of the Abbey, however, were the crypt and the trapdoor. The trapdoor is located behind the throne and gives access to remains of the old Saxon church as well as containing two coffins.
The crypt at Hexham Abbey is one of the best preserved in the country. This is because it was forgotten and not rediscovered until 1725. Originally the crypt was used by pilgrims who would come in from the outside and move through a dark passage until they came upon the shrine which was bathed in light and contained a relic of St. Andrew. There they would worship before ascending into the Church. The monks also had their own entrance. After tackling some rather steep stairs, we could explore it for ourselves. From the use of old Roman stones, carved with Latin, it’s clear the builders were keen on recycling!
Finally, we finished our visit to the Abbey by exploring the museum which not only has information and artefacts relating to the building but also activities such as building a Gothic arch with foam blocks!