diamond geezer

 Monday, February 04, 2013

Day out: St Albans
When I was little, St Albans was the default school trip. A cathedral, a Roman city, some museums, it had everything. We'd pile into the coach clutching our Mummy-made sandwiches, and alight at the other end with clipboards at the ready. And it would always rain, every visit, without fail. Even when I visited with my family it'd rain, and it became a standing joke that whenever we went to St Albans we'd get wet. So I thought I'd try to break the habit by visiting several decades later, on a predicted-to-be-dry day, and wandering around again. It didn't rain, although it was very cold. And I'd forgotten quite how many things there were to see...
» Visit St Albans

St Alban's Abbey
One thing that London lacks is a traditional English cathedral. We have the grand and dramatic, like Westminster or St Paul's, and we have the more gently proportioned, like Southwark, but nowhere that's surrounded by cloisters accessed down an alleyway off the high street [photo]. St Alban's Abbey is a proper English cathedral, which could be in any provincial city but just happens to be a few miles into Hertfordshire. It sits on a hilltop, the site of the execution of Roman citizen Alban sometime in the 3rd century AD [photo]. He was caught sheltering a Christian priest and was duly beheaded, so becoming England's protomartyr (a word I learnt at the weekend and am proud to pass on to you). This makes St Albans the oldest place of continuous Christian worship in Britain, which is quite impressive for a commuter town in the Home Counties.

Unlike many cathedrals St Alban's Abbey has free admission, hurrah. Most enter via the modern Chapter House extension, so first encounter the cafe and the gift shop, but wiser visitors head instead for the West Door [photo]. Here you're straight into the main body of the cathedral, and one of the longest naves in Europe. I wouldn't have guessed that if I hadn't been told, but the Norman arches do stretch off for some distance, and there's room for a lot of chairs [photo]. Some of the pillars are painted with 13th century art, now looking much worse for wear but still priceless. During larger services the action ends at the nave screen, a carved stone wall with niches emptied during the Reformation, and only very recently replaced by blue-tinged martyr statues [photo]. Behind that is the Quire, where you might have seen me singing once, but only if you came on New Year's Day 1977, which I think I can guarantee you didn't.

The tower rises high above the central space, with the original ceiling protected by a brightly painted replica. Half as tall is the High Altar Screen, an intricate 15th century collection of carved figures beneath a brightly painted roof [photo]. On my visit the chancel was getting its pre-Sunday scrub, while a lady with a bottle of cleaning fluid nipped round the choir stalls and polished them to perfection. Don't miss the small exhibition to the left of the modern Rose Window, including a replica of the astronomical clock built by a medieval abbot - it dings on the hour. And round the back of the High Altar is the reason we're here, the Shrine of St Alban, although try not to come when there's a service on or you'll not get inside. Guided tours of the cathedral are freely available, and in warmer months you can go up the tower to see the bells and the view from the roof. If you fancy visiting a proper English Cathedral, within easy reach of the capital, St Alban's comes recommended. [photo]

Verulamium Museum
It wasn't called St Albans originally, obviously... this was Verulamium. The Romans settled here on Watling Street, one day's march from Londinium, and an important town grew up. Initially the locals were friendly, but after Boudicca wheeled in and torched the place they rebuilt everything inside a stone wall. Temples, basilica and a forum, all were here, with what remains now buried beneath a public park [photo]. In one corner the council have built a museum, nothing huge, but enough to tell you the story of the place through a variety of archaeological finds. There are thousands of these, many of them excavated from the site by Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa in the 1930s. Pots, tools, tiles, jewellery, that sort of thing, plus a hoard of shiny gold coins found last year a few miles away. Presentation is informative without being patronising, none of this "four words and an interactive graphic" rubbish some 21st century museums try to fob you off with. One section's set out like a a Roman street, clearly funded on a municipal budget, while another features a seven minute film narrated by the man who was once the skeleton laid out in the coffin below. During my visit several middle class parents were leading their children around, educating and entertaining - look at this Katy, they played board games just like us, isn't that interesting? The museum's nothing huge, but gives proper decent background information, and all for £2.80.

In the middle of the Verulamium Park, above the football pitches, is a squat white building which looks like it might be changing rooms. Not so. Inside is a mosaic pavement, formerly one room of a much bigger Roman house [photo]. All those tiles would have been cold to the touch were it not for the central heating underneath. Hot air flowed from a furnace through vents under the floor - they called it a hypocaust - technology that would be lost to the world for several centuries afterwards. The surrounding structure wasn't here last time I came, and not much expense has been spared on its interior decoration. A metal platform and walkway hang round the perimeter, with a handful of explanatory notes near a fire extinguisher on an upper wall. It's the ideal place to hide from the cold if your son is running in a mass participation cross country race further across the park, but you might be luckier and get the pavement to yourself.

Roman Theatre, St AlbansRoman Theatre
When we think of Roman entertainment we normally think of an amphitheatre, with wild animals released into the arena and gladiators fighting to the death. Verulamium never had one of those, but they did have a theatre, the base of which survives. To find it follow the frankly appalling signage from Verulamium Museum, across a main road and up a permissive track. Try not to frighten the lady in the kiosk (she doesn't see many visitors in February) and £2.50 will get you inside. Two rings of concentric mounds mark the theatre site - the inner ring original and the outer merely the pile of spoil after the former was uncovered. The entire population of the town, some seven thousand strong, might once have been able to sit here on sloping terraces between deep gangways. The boundaries of the stage remain, complete with one of the pillars that stood across the rear. Even the dressing rooms backstage are delineated. You can't step off the path and explore close-up, but the perimeter walk offers fine views all round [photo]. Elsewhere a 2nd century house and some shops have been revealed, and one further site remains to be explored (please keep off).

Museum of St Albans
This building tells the story of the city after the Romans left, which is still a considerable history. The abbey that grew up here made St Albans nationally important, at least until King Henry VIII got rid. The city grew rich again as a coaching town, offering refreshment to long-distance travellers, losing its through traffic only when the M1 was completed. Various aspects of heritage are nicely told, with just enough depth and detail. My favourite discovery was that Samuel Ryder the "pack of seeds for a penny" entrepreneur was based here. It was he who inaugurated the Ryder Cup, due to his love of golf, and he's buried in the Hatfield Road Cemetery with his golf club at his side. The museum hosts ever-changing arty stuff on the ground floor, and currently features an exhibition by fashion maestro Sarah Baker (including an hour long Dynasty-style feature, filmed locally with arch cosmopolitan bling).

Elsewhere in the city...
» Old Town Hall: This mostly empty building houses the tourist information centre, but it's hoped to relocate the Museum of St Albans here within the next ten years. It's a much more central location, and it'd be good to reuse the old council chamber properly. [photo]
» Clock Tower: A civic structure, never connected to a church, used to ring the curfew bell in the 1400s. You can climb it in the summer. [photo]
» Market Place: Twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays, a market runs down one side of St Peter's Street. It's not quite highbrow yuppie, but it's far from plastic tat and knock-off DVDs. [photo]
» Ye Olde Fighting Cocks: It used to claim to be the oldest pub in Britain, although many pubs claimed that, and the plea now appears to be withdrawn. [photo] Several other very old pubs can be found in the city centre, and down towards St Michael's Church. [photo]
» Sopwell Nunnery: The ruins of a nunnery, where Anne Boleyn may have stayed but probably didn't, lie on a patch of scrappy suburban grass amid a housing estate.
» River Ver: This runs below the town, at the foot of Holywell Hill. Should you want to follow this chalk stream 17 miles from Markyate to the Colne, this excellent set of nine leaflets will guide you.
» St Albans South Signal Box: Restored a few years ago, this lever-pulling box is open to the public every 2nd Sunday of the month and some 4th Sundays. That's this Sunday, if you're interested. It's very near the main station, and free to take a look around. [photo]

Lots to see, across a variety of historical eras, and a dead easy day trip from London. That's St Albans. [16 photos]

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