Oral Histories

If These Stones Could Speak is an archive of memories shared by people about their connections to and experiences of Hexham Abbey. The first interviews, collected in the autumn of 2017, focus on stories from the past about the newly restored and re-purposed Priory Buildings. How have these historic buildings been used within living memory? Some of the answers are quite a surprise! The archive will then collect a wide variety of reminiscences, which will bring to life the importance of the Abbey, as a parish church and heritage site, in the lives of people past and present.

Reflections on the Hexham Abbey Project
John Robinson moved to Hexham in 1973 to join a firm of solicitors in a busy, agricultural market town. Over the years he has observed the changing nature of the town and Abbey. John was part of the Hexham Abbey Project (2004-17), to create the Priory Buildings visitor and community centre, from the first beginnings in 2004/5. He explains how he became more significantly involved in the project and how it began to take shape with the support of Northumberland County Council. From his perspective as a former solicitor practising in Hexham, he reflects on the impact of the closure of the magistrate court but also why the Abbey decided to step in to acquire the lease for the court buildings, and the impact this had on the project.
A History of 'so many exciting things'
Marilyn Atkinson was born in Corbridge and has lived all her life in Hexham, much of it in and around the Abbey. She recalls her earliest Abbey memory of Sunday School in the Nave with the ‘terrifying’ teacher, Emily Nixon, whom she later came to befriend! Marilyn describes Abbey community life in the past: the varied activities held in the Abbey community centre, the acquisition of Abbey Cottage (now the Parish Centre), after-Evensong gatherings held at ‘The Loft’ at the rear of The Royal Hotel and the stunning displays for Harvest. She recalls the evolution of the Abbey shop and, Dorothy and Stella, the Abbey stalwarts who were the driving force behind so many activities. Marilyn explains how she met her husband through the Abbey and how the Queen’s dress was a little disappointing! All in all, a history she describes as ‘so many exciting things…’.
A Surprising Skeleton
In 1993, more skeletons were discovered outside the Abbey, when the council began work to remodel the land surrounding the church. Dr Stan Beckensall recalls the surprising discovery of a woman’s skeleton in what would have been the canons’ graveyard and how eventually many of the bones were reburied inside the Abbey.
Digging up the Past
Renowned archaeologist, Dr Stan Beckensall, has been part of the Abbey’s community for over 40 years, since he moved to Hexham in 1977. Stan talks about how he came to live in Northumberland and how he first became involved in archaeology almost by accident in West Sussex. In 1990, when workers were laying telecom cables outside what is now the Abbey shop, Stan was drawn into an ‘accidental’ archaeological investigation. Bones from about 16 people were unearthed, the oldest of which seemed to date from Saxon times. Stan was soon joined by local archaeology enthusiasts, which included another member of the Abbey community, a local doctor and a dental pathologist. With the help of an unused scanner at the RVI, the team were able to assess the human remains. Finally, some of the bones were laid to rest in the Abbey itself to acknowledge the importance these unknown people had to the Abbey’s story.
The 'Wild-West' 'Comfy Chair'
Richard Nelson has worked as a solicitor in Hexham for the last 35 years. During that time, he witnessed the many changes to the court provision in the town. When he first arrived in Hexham, all court participants – defendants, witnesses, solicitors – entered the main court mixed up together, via the steep stone steps on the outside of the building. Richard recalls that a formal dock and eventually a bulletproof enclosure replaced the 'wild-west' ‘comfy chair’, which was originally used for the defendant. Richard explains how the service was gradually streamlined to make cost and efficiency savings, from three active courts down to one. Yet despite these modernisations and rationalisations, the court closed in 2011, which came as a huge surprise and disappointment to all.
Living on the Job
In the early 1950s, John Ferguson lodged upstairs in the Priory Buildings as a young police constable, when he received his first posting to Hexham. At that time, the Priory Buildings housed the town's police station and courts, as well as the residence for single police constables. With humour John recalls his time living here, being looked after by a housekeeper and having a bedroom where condensation ran down the walls in winter! With a grumpy police super living across the courtyard and a 'points' system operating in the days before radios or mobile phones, life was colourful. It was also a quieter time in the town: John recalls that the cells were not used much, except by revellers from Prudhoe on a Friday or Saturday night if they missed the last bus home.
A Family Feeling
For sixteen years (1992-2008), Bridget Cuthbertson worked for the social services of Northumberland County Council, based in the Priory Buildings, which the council then owned. There was a public reception area in what is now the Abbey Refectory and the social workers had offices on the first floor. Bridget recalls the tangle of rooms, many quite damp with trailing cables, but she remembers it as a place where the team had great fun and felt there was a family feeling. During her time as a social worker here, she saw Hexham expand but grow quieter commercially, and the vast area she covered took her to see clients living ‘above the snow line’ and with no mains services.
A Children’s Playground
As a young girl, Margaret Tindall moved to Hexham in the early 1950s, when her widowed mother re-married. At that time, her grandmother lived in an upstairs flat in the Priory Buildings, as she was the housekeeper for police cadets living on site. Margaret had not been inside the Priory Buildings since her grandmother left in the 1960s but she was able to re-visit when the buildings were restored and opened to the public. She recalls how much fun it was for a child to stay there with her grandmother, to slide along the highly polished floor of the Court and she points out what remains today from her grandmother’s time.