The big idea

Many cities, rather un-inspiringly, think proximity to London is an important factor in their current status. St Albans, however, is one of the few places where proximity to the capital has had a major influence in shaping the place. Originally a day’s march away for the Roman army, this is likely one of the reasons it became such an important Roman town. In more recent times, its location on the main thoroughfare linking the north into the capital meant it became a very important coaching stopover.
 
These facts, together with the prodigious number of charities and help groups emanating from the place, highlight the main reason to come here; it is the most welcoming and hospitable city.
 

Verulamium and the beautiful abbey

Towards the west of St Albans is where you can act out your Russell Crowe Gladiator fantasies. Here, all in one place are the Roman theatre, the Roman mosaic and the Verulamium Park and Museum: a unique and fascinating insight into the Roman legacy on the country. The museum features artefacts, mosaics and re-created rooms that allow you to experience what it was to live in those times. The nearby Roman theatre, the only visible example left in Britain, would have been used for armed combat and wild beast shows. In Verulamium Park, which would have covered much of the old city, there’s 100 acres of tranquil parkland and a large ornamental lake, and in the centre the Hypocaust, a preserved roman building, and an exceptionally early example of under-floor heating!
 
The Cathedral and Abbey church is best known as the shrine of St Alban, but you’ll also find there remnants of Roman bricks used in the building of the abbey tower, as well as medieval wall paintings.
 

An accommodating city

St Albans has always been a place to welcome visitors, from the early days of pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Alban, through mediaeval times for the plentiful markets, to the travellers on the stage-coaches and evacuees during the war. But it’s the location as a through-route that marks out the city as special. Not only has it meant more inns than comparably sized cities or towns, but the route to the market of London has ensured the markets in St Albans have simply been better furnished with goods and produce.
The number of pubs to service all those thirsty travellers has meant a huge number of breweries in the town over the centuries (that’s likely why St Albans is the home to CAMRA, the real ale group).
 
So, we’ve got a welcoming population, proximity on a major thoroughfare, and plenty of inns – no doubt a good reason why St Albans has also been a popular stopping-off point for any marhcers intent on showing the powers in London what they think. From the Hunger Marchers to the Jarrow Marchers, they’ve all stopped at St Albans over the years.
 
But this accommodating nature has manifested itself in other ways. You see, St Albans is home to the country’s first Sunday School, way back in 1794; the home of the founder of the National Children’s Home; was the first local division of the St Johns Ambulance, and, more recently in the late 1950s, was the home town of what was to become Age Concern – quite a collection from one relatively small city. Charitable and hospitable: welcome to St Albans.

The essence

Surely it’s simply warm and welcoming (interestingly, the first Naturist club opened here in 1930; now that’s accommodating for you).
 

How you’ll feel visiting St Albans/who’s it ideal for?

Er…how about welcome?

Some cities make you feel part of things, a wider community; others are great for inspiring you; and others are simply perfect for relaxation.

This city can make you feel goodwill to others, and part of that community.

History

St Albans started life as a small Celtic settlement known as Verlamio, on the banks of the River Ver. But it was the Romans who transformed it into a significant town, the third largest in the land and, by AD 50, known as Verulamium. However, one local resident, Alban, protested loudly about the decadence of the Roman lifestyle, and subsequently paid with his life in AD 209. 40 years later he was to become Britain’s first Christian martyr and the namesake for the town of St Albans (his much-visited shrine became the spot for the current abbey).
 
Once the Romans had realised their empire was crumbling and fled the country, Saxon King Offa (he of Offa’s Dyke fame) took an interest in the abbey and transformed it into a monastery in the care of the Order of St Benedict. The town was becoming a popular place for pilgrims and visitors to the shrine.
 
The Normans, when they took over, were very much into building castles and churches, and pretty quickly set about turning St Albans abbey church into the largest in England and one of the finest in the Christian world; both with external re-building and an internal beautification programme that made it famous. Sculptors and artists arriving throughout the thirteenth century continued the work (incidentally the first and only English Pope, Pope Adrian IV, was educated at St Albans School around these times).
 
The 14thand 15thcenturies were characterised by tensions between the abbey and the townsfolk. One of the effects of this simmering frustration was the building of the Clock Tower, previously known as the Curfew Tower and the only mediaeval town belfry in England, by the townsfolk in open defiance of the abbey. However, at this time St Albans was proving a magnet for pilgrims and travellers attracted by the quality of the markets.
 
St Albans played host to the first battle of The War of the Roses in 1455, and, in later years, suffered badly during the suppression of the monasteries under Cromwell, when much of the beauty of the abbey was destroyed.
 
By the 18thcentury St Albans was thriving once again, primarily due to the rise of coaching and the perfect position of the town on the main route from the north into the capital. Coaching inns sprang up as travellers boosted the local economy. The town was also enjoying a national reputation for straw hats – the town’s straw plait market being amongst the largest in the country. In 1877 the town became a city and the abbey church became a cathedral (although its still locally referred to as an abbey). Also at this time there was a significant housing boom, with many new public buildings going up.
 
St Albans also has a strong heritage in horticulture. Part of Clarence Park, to the east of the city, was a nursery renowned the world over for its variety of specimens, and one Frederick Sander was even appointed royal orchid grower to Queen Victoria. And possibly better known today was a contemporary of his, Samuel Ryder, an ex-mayor who made his fortune selling packets of seeds (although he’s likely more famous for giving the world the internationally famous Ryder Cup, to celebrate his love of golf).
 
World War II had a big impact on St Albans, simply because of the sheer number of homes in the area that put up children and mothers during evacuations. Yet more evidence of St Albans’ welcoming tendencies.
 
Finally, more recently, the city hosted the 900thanniversary of the Norman Abbey in 1977; the carnival was so popular it’s since become an annual event and one of the largest in England.

How to experience St Albans

Start out west of the city with the Roman Museum, the park and the theatre. There’s a lot to experience here (if you can, visit on the second weekend of the month; there’s a re-enactment group in the galleries who’ll explain the tactics and equipment of the Roman army).
 
The award-winning Verulamium Museum is a cracking place to visit, and contains some of the finest treasures of Roman Britain, including several beautiful mosaics, as well as re-created rooms of the period. The museum is on the edge of Verulamium Park, an attractive parkland which covers the site of what was the original Roman town, and a relaxing stroll today.
After getting back to nature, head back to the museum- right next door you’ve got St Michael’s Church, which contains a monument to the famous philosopher Sir Francis Bacon- and over the road is the Roman Theatre. This is the only visible example left in Britain. Just close your eyes and imagine what scenes have been played out in this historic place.
 
Also in the area is Gorhambury House, seat of the Earl of Verulam and more recently home to Sir Francis Bacon. Then pop along St Michaels Street – look to your left for the Kingsbury Watermill with its beautifully restored water wheel – and turn right into Fishpool Street. Make sure you check out the pavements here, they were raised to ensure easy access onto the stagecoaches, and the mediaeval inns that are still in use today. Cut through George Street with its boutiques and antique shops and we’re then into the city proper; here you’ll be able to see the mediaeval street pattern which still exists today.
 
As you enter the top of Market Place check out the Clock Tower, that ancient symbol of conflict between the monastery and the townsfolk (and yes you can climb to the top, 93 steps in all, and while you’re up there say hello to the bell; it’s called Gabriel).
 
Shopping-wise you’re now right next to Christopher Place, home to a number of speciality shops around a central courtyard, and in the Cathedral Quarter, more specialist stores in a picturesque setting. From the High Street turn right down Holywell Hill. This was the main thoroughfare for the stage coaches travelling down to London. It’s a fairly steep hill so imagine the pace of some of those beauties hurtling down there. As you stroll down the hill look out for the Comfort Hotel on the left; this was the original office of Samuel Ryder’s seed company, he of Ryder Cup fame. Partway down the hill on the right is one of the entrances to the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban. In here you’ll find the peaceful Vintry Gardens, once home to the abbey vineyards, which now grows vines again up the walls thanks to a gift from one of St Albans’ twin towns, Worms in Germany. While in the grounds also look out for the distinctive gravestones of the late Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a Bishop of St Albans, and Lord Grimesthorpe, the designer of Big Ben’s clock mechanism in Westminster. The cathedral itself is architecturally a mixture of different periods, but the great tower includes Roman bricks. Inside you’ll find the longest nave of any cathedral in England.
From the Cathedral, head through the impressive Abbey Gateway- dating from the 14thcentury its past uses have included a town gaol and a printing press- then turn left and amble down Abbey Mill Lane. You’ve probably earned a well-deserved drink by now, so stop off at The Old Fighting Cocks, officially Britain’s oldest pub, as recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.
 
Now head back up the lane to the High Street. From here walk along Chequer Street (to the right is The Maltings, the other large shopping centre in the city) onto the main St Peter’s Street, this is where many of the larger stores are in St Albans (including the very first Tesco self-service store in the country dating from 1951) – look up and admire the handsome Georgian facades of many of the buildings. Along here on the right is the Alban Arena, Hertfordshire’s great entertainment venue.
 
At the top of the road, at the roundabout, turn right along Hatfield Road; here’s where you’ll find the Museum of St Albans, a charming little museum which helps bring the history of the city to life.
 
Finally, to experience the horticultural side of St Albans, why not check out Clarence Park, further along the Hatfield Road to the east of the city?
Recently re-furbished back to its original glory, with formal bedding schemes and croquet lawn, this is a classic example of a Victorian park (also in the vicinity, by St Albans City Train Station, is the only signal box in the country on a mainline railway line open to the public; you’re encouraged to have a go and change the signals; and the quirky St Albans Organ Theatre).
And so to the south of the city, to the world-renowned Royal National Rose Society Gardens, highlights of which include a 72-arch pergola of climbing roses, three new ponds and displays of modern and old garden roses; and, next door, visit Butterfly World, aiming to be the biggest butterfly experience in the world.

When to visit

City pics

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