Monday, 22 February 2016

The City Of St Albans

You don't expect, having travelled on the Number 301 bus from Hatfield railway station through a landscape of traffic lights, advertising hoardings and retail outlets, to suddenly find yourself in a street market thronged with an almost medieval atmosphere of chattering townsfolk, with ancient houses teetering over brightly-coloured stalls. 

But that is exactly how it felt when I arrived on a grey and unpromising day in St Albans. I'd come to see something rather special which I'd read about, something which I'll get around to showing you towards the end of the week. First though I wanted to enjoy this unexpected little fragment of an older Britain that had somehow infiltrated the urban sprawl and traffic fumes just a few miles north of the M25 motorway.

A busker - nay, a troubadour - sang in a narrow alley opposite the Olde Sweet Shoppe.

The market, which describes itself as the most vibrant in the south of England, was granted a royal charter back in 1553, though it is documented as far back as the ninth century. To quote from the St Albans website "Where else could you buy a whole salmon, cut-to-size foam, healing crystals or herbs all in one place?"

Now you might think that the building above is a church tower but in fact it's nothing to do with any church, it's just a clock tower.  It stands 77 feet (23 m) high and dates from 1412 and is one of only two similar structures in the country.  

The building above is Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pub, one of several buildings that claim to be the oldest pub in England. The evidence for its claim appears to be rather scanty to say the least, but it is old and it sells beer - what more do you want? There's a nice park nearby too, fancy a walk?

Town parks are not my usual choice for a bracing stroll but there are reasons for being here. You see, even when this place was a medieval market town it already had a long and interesting history. The rather enigmatic bits of stone paving above are actually old foundations. Foundations of the town gates. The gates of the Roman town. 

St Albans was known to the Romans as Verulamium and where we are walking is Verulamium Park. That wall in the photo above is the Roman city wall, the Romans occupying the site from about 50AD onwards. There must still be a lot of undiscovered Roman remains under what is now parkland though most of the stone was removed to construct later buildings such as the huge Abbey which once stood nearby; this bit of wall having only been left because it was in dense woodland.

A low concrete building stands in a rather isolated part of the park and once inside you can view a remarkable Roman mosaic floor which has been unearthed at what was once the site of a considerable Roman villa. Those of you who, like me, have carried the word hypocaust around in your head since school days will be delighted to see this.....

Yes, it's the remains of a Roman underfloor heating system, quite probably a lot more efficient than the heating in my house! 

Back out into the park once more my eyes were attracted to a mighty building on the horizon. It's the cathedral, the former Abbey church, and it's not such a surprise to me as I'd walked past it earlier in the day, in fact you can see its tower in the very first picture. It's where we need to be heading next and I'll tell you a bit about it next time.

Take care.


  1. I am never disappointed by your posts John - this one is such an excellent tour around what is obviously a really interesting place. I have not been in the south of the country very much other than the western peninsula. I WAS amused by the first photograph of the market and by the lady and gentleman in the foreground - going round the world on Google without ever knowing anything about it!

  2. This is one of the treats I love about England. You can unexpectedly find yourself taken back hundreds of years. It's rather like time travel.

  3. Great post! The market itself, the setting, the Roman ruins, you have history at your feet. It must have taken a long time to set that tile to get that design, the pieces being so small. I guess the slaves did that work. Such a walk is one of the things I love about the U.K.

  4. Hard to believe the mosaic floor is so old because it is in such good shape. But then again, the Romans were such good builders. The heated floor must have been very cozy during rainy winter days.

  5. I'll wager that mosaic floor is one of the best in the country.

  6. I would love to stroll through that market...actually, I would like to sit and people watch. Love that clock tower...and that floor! Wow.

  7. such a rich history--I love the mosaic!

  8. It looks like as lively a market as Roman times. I imagine the goods are a bit different though. That tile floor is wonderful, and hypercaust IS a word I carry around in my head from my days of walking the Roman Wall!

  9. Such a wonderful visit to St Albans. The roman floor is like new.

  10. That would be so great to see all these places, to stroll on the streets filled with people, check what merchants are selling in the street market and just stop at every interesting corner and look at the beautiful architecture!!! Nice photos!

  11. My parents have friends in St Albans and have spoken fondly of the area. That heated floor is amazing -- did they have hot water running through or air?

  12. WOW! That's quite an amazing place with such rich history. How wonderful that it hasn't been forgotten.


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