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Your Armchair Tour of St Albans

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by Kym Hamer (subscribe)
Kym is an Aussie sheila who came to the UK, set down her swag, and stayed. Check out her everyday moments at www.giddayfromtheuk.blogspot.com
Published February 16th 2012
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a few impromptu hours on a bright and wintery Saturday, in the township of St Albans.

St Albans is a bustling market town 22 miles north of London and started life in the Iron Age as Verlamion (which means settlement above the marsh). Following the Roman conquest in 43 AD, the name changed to Verulamian and it grew to become the second largest town in Roman-occupied Britain (after Londinium). During Roman occupation, the town was a pivotal defence outpost (along with the town we know as Colchester) against raids by the local tribes and around 60 AD, Queen of the Iceni tribe, Boudicea burnt the city to the ground.
Boudicea, Queen of the Iceni tribe
Source: earlybritishkingdoms.com

There were other names attributed after the Romans withdrew early in the 5th Century AD but the modern town gets its name from Britain's first Christian martyr, Alban, who was executed as a traitor around 250 AD. The current Abbey of St Alban was supposedly built over the spot where Alban was executed.
Source: earlybritishkingdoms.com

After a leisurely breakfast, we braved the cold, crisp Saturday and meandered through the Market Place. Saturday is market day in St Albans and there were plenty of stalls selling everything from local crafts and fresh produce to knick knacks and vintage pieces. The locals were out in force and this gave St Albans a very English village feel for me.
St Albans Market Place
St Albans bustling on market day

We turned right into a covered alleyway and emerged to see the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban bathed in wintery sunshine. What an amazing building and such a testament to local history. Once inside there was an awe-inspiring array of history, architecture and restoration works to see and had I not been a little short of time, I may have returned for the 2pm guided tour or even a concert later that evening.
Abbey and Church of St Alban
Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban

Back into the winter sunshine, the rolling lawn down to the River Ver stretched out before us and so we set out down the park towards Ye Olde Fighting Cocks for a spot of lunch. This pub purports to be one of the oldest pubs in Britain, although as an Aussie I have to say most of Britain's pubs are old to me.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, obviously on a much warmer day

History has it that Ye Olde Fighting Cocks started life as a pigeon house near the Abbey before being dismantled and rebuilt in its current location in about 793 AD. In 1800, it was renamed to reflect the popularity of its main attraction, cockfighting. This activity was banned in 849 AD but there's still a glass case containing a large black cockerel above the door as you enter the low-beamed dining room.

Replete with great-tasting and hearty food, next it was a brisk and rather chilly stroll into Verulamian Park to view the Roman hypocaust and mosaic. The building looks a little like a toilet block from afar but don't be fooled. It's a short walk around the lake (which was frozen when I went) and up the hill and definitely worth a look at the ingenuity of Roman central heating.
Roman hypocaust and mosaics pavilion

Time was getting away and so at this point I turned for the train station. So back up the hill I trudged, through the Monastery Tower (which has been a prison in its life amongst many other things), back through the Market Place and past the Clock Tower, which was erected by the town to symbolise its independence from the church. For me, this independence was encapsulated by their setting of their own curfew. How just like a teenage town.
Clock Tower of St Albans

There are many other things to see and do in St Albans and websites like allaboutstalbans.co.uk are a good starting point for planning your day, or even weekend if the mood takes you. Trains run from Brighton and Sutton through London's Kings Cross St Pancras and out to St Albans on a pretty regular basis and the town centre and attractions are easily walk-able so you can leave the car at home.

As I snuggled back in the cosy warmth of the train back to London, I couldn't help feeling that it was a pity that I'd had to leave so soon. I'd have to say that it was an unexpectedly enjoyable few hours in one of England's most important historic towns.
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Why? Immerse yourself in a little patch of history
When: Anytime
Where: St Albans
Cost: Free to wander - the rest is up to you.
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