Hexham basks in glory of being best market town in England

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The Independent Online

Hexham shivered under a mist that lingered into the early afternoon yesterday but no one was complaining.

After weeks of suspense, the Northumberland town learnt it had edged out Framlingham, Suffolk, for the title of England's favourite market town, two months after it won the Britain in Bloom "best small town" prize. A panel of judges assembled by Country Life magazine - including the actress Penelope Keith , the TV presenter Noel Edmonds and Lord Hope, the former Archbishop of York - described Hexham as a "place where people matter ... [and] traditional values are understood and preserved". Other contenders were Stamford in Lincolnshire, Alresford in Hampshire and Marlborough in Wiltshire.

"It shows how much of a local identity we have here," said Jo Burrill, who co-ordinates the farmers' market. "There's a pride in the place." Four years ago, that market was the embodiment of Hexham's fighting spirit when foot-and-mouth broke out 15 miles away, at Heddon-on-the-Wall, and the town faced economic calamity. The stallholders soldiered on, cancelling the event only twice during the crisis and the market won the National Farmers' Union best farmers' market in England and Wales prize for 2001.

The award lured hundreds of customers to the market - held on the second and fourth Saturday in the month - to discover such specialities as local oyster mushrooms and Northumberland Hill lamb. "A survey of our customers showed they want their produce local and fresh and to interact with the people making it," Mrs Burrill said. She makes and sells bread ground at a nearby water mill from local wheat. "With good upland grazing for sheep, and pasture land for cattle we can offer all of that."

The judges said the town's magnificent abbey, dating from 674, the 14th-century Old Gaol and the 16th-century Moot Hall helped to make Hexham "a place its inhabitants clearly love".

But there are some aspects of Hexham that give cause for concern. On the edge of town, the Egger chipboard factory throws out an unsightly plume familiar to those who use the bypass. Colin Tapping, editor of the Hexham Courant, said: "There is an environmental debate about its impact at the gateway to the town but you can't underestimate the importance of those jobs."

Then there is Hexham's new Tesco, which has set up shop to the north of the town, provoking fears that shoppers will no longer walk up the hill to the pedestrianised town centre.

John Herron, the leader of Tynedale council, said: "It's early days but the signs are that it is not hurting the independents. We have a habit of not letting these things beat us. The pride in this place helps us all along."

What makes a perfect place?

* Architecture: new housing blends in with older period homes without looking contrived.

* Vibrancy: a good selection of high street shops, independent traders, restaurants and bars.

* Accessibility and transport: close to a train station, buses and motorway links.

* Parking: plenty of spaces not far from shops and other facilities.

* Amenities: sports clubs, theatres, cinemas and local societies.

* Space: playing fields and open areas for walking.

* Self-sustaining: ability to support itself without having to rely heavily on tourism.

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