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Growing up on the edge of St Albans, I rather took the local heritage thing for granted, because whatever we were learning about in class, we could pretty much find it on the doorstep.
History lessons were brought to life by our local Roman heritage, atmospheric Cathedral, and the shadow of a great monastery which would have been even greater if Henry VIII hadn’t thrown a wobbly in 1539. We had nature lessons beside the duck-filled lakes of Verulamium Park and enjoyed geography field trips in the local countryside.
At the time, I didn’t really appreciate how lucky we were. It was only when I came back to live in the city as a parent that I really began to appreciate what St Albans has to offer. International tourists flock from London to Oxford and Cambridge, to Canterbury and Salisbury, but St Albans is largely overlooked, despite offering more than 2000 years of well-preserved history in one easy-to-explore package.
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Nestled on the northern fringes of Hertfordshire, barely 20 minutes from the magnificent new rail terminal at London St Pancras, St Albans takes its name from England’s first Christian martyr, executed by the Romans in the 3rd century AD. Legend has it that a spring of water appeared where he fell, an event commemorated in one of the city’s most picturesque thoroughfares, Holywell Hill.
The town began as Verlamion, an Iron Age community meaning ‘Settlement above the marsh’, but after the Roman invasion of AD43, it was renamed Verulamium, eventually growing to become the third largest town in Roman Britain.
Today, many artefacts remain – the best preserved Roman theatre in Britain; a hypocaust or bath suite with some impressive central heating; and many mosaics and smaller treasurers housed in Verulamium Museum on the edge of Verulamium Park – a great place to start a circular tour.
The hub of the Roman town lies here beneath 100 acres of open space, dotted with fine trees and bisected by the river Ver. Two thousand years on, it is still a focal point for local residents with its picturesque lake, dug out in the 1920s.
At the far end of the lake stands Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, originally a Medieval pigeon house and now reputed to be Britain’s oldest pub. Head up the open space of Abbey Orchard and you arrive at the Cathedral, once the Abbey church to an extensive Benedictine monastery which stretched downhill to the river. Today only the Abbey Gateway and Abbey Church survive.
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Ask about free guided tours or simply pick up the free leaflet to enjoy the highlights. Don’t miss the shrine of St Alban and 15th century carved watching chamber, the 13th century wall paintings and recycled Roman bricks along the nave. If hunger beckons, the Chapter House café sells excellent light snacks.
The city’s Cathedral Quarter is packed with history – pick up the free leaflet from the Tourist Information Office in the Old Town Hall. Stroll past ancient hostelleries along French Row, see the 15th century clock tower; and take in the quaint buildings of George Street, once the principal through route and now lined with tempting boutiques.
George Street leads into Fishpool Street with its quaint cottages, raised pavements and picturesque pubs, leading back down to the river and Kingsbury Water Mill. Take a tour round this ancient flour mill, leaving time to enjoy a freshly made sweet or savoury snack at the popular Waffle House, before heading through pretty St Michael’s Village towards Verulamium Park and the Roman museum.
Visit on a Wednesday or Saturday and you can enjoy St Albans’ bustling market, but if you’ve never been to St Albans, just come. Whichever day you choose, you’re in for a treat.
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