Sunday, May 6th 2018
St Albans is in Hertfordshire, north-west-ish of London (see this Bing Map). The city is named, obviously enough, after Saint Alban, martyred in AD 209. According to legend, Alban was a citizen living in the Roman town of Verulamium at a time when Rome was persecuting Christians. Despite being a pagan, Alban kindly gave shelter to a Christian priest fleeing arrest. When the pursuers arrived at the house, Alban passed himself off as the priest, an act of charity that led to his execution and, later, to his being claimed by the Church as a saint and martyr.
In the Christian era, the town was renamed Sancte Albanes stow (stow being an Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘holy place’), thus ‘St Alban’s Holy Place’, which became shortened to the more convenient ‘St Albans’, the name by which it is known today. Locals often go further and humorously refer to the place as ‘Snorbens’.
Arriving at St Albans
It is easy for us to get to St Albans. We simply stroll down the road to St Pancras station and catch a Bedford train which stops at St Albans City Station. There follows an uphill walk to reach the town centre but that’s good exercise, I suppose. (We took the bus to the station on the way back.)
We had no special agenda and rambled as fancy took us, stopping for refreshments in the branch of Starbuck’s in the High Street opposite the clock tower. Below are some photos of what we saw along the way. There is lots to see in St Albans and what appears here is just a random sample. We have visited it many times before (e.g. see The saint and the water fowl) and will no doubt do so again in the future.
Trinity United Reformed Church
Trinity opened for business at a ceremony on October 8th 1903, having been funded by the existing Congregational Church of St Albans1. As far as I can tell, the only noteworthy event in its subsequent history was a fire in 1981 which completely gutted the interior and destroyed the roof, ironically just when the church was being renovated and modernized.
The Old Public Library
This fine old building was St Albans’ first public library now, sadly, converted into a steak house. When was it built? Finding the dates of old buildings can sometimes be a challenge but in this case we have a good clue. If a building has drainpipes (and what building does not?), then look at the drainpipe hoppers. (See picture at left.) Unless the drainage has been renewed at some time, the hopper often bears the building’s date. In this case, that date is 1911.
Building started in 1910 and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie provided two grants totalling £3,597 out of the final cost of £4,290. There is a stained glass window showing Andrew Carnegie holding a model of the building in his hands. The library was replaced by a new one in the 1980s and this building closed as a library in April 1988. The design is said to be typical of Carnegie libraries which feature a grand entrance reached by a flight of steps. (They obviously gave little thought to wheelchair users in those days.)
Building with turret
The aforementioned library is in Victoria Street, along which we were walking from the station. On the corner, this building, 1 Victoria Street, caught my eye. This is because buildings with turrets always fascinate me. I imagine having a room in a turret and being able to look out in two, or even more, directions. I know nothing about the building except that it is Victorian (appropriate in view of the name iof the street in which it resides), dating, I think, from the 1870s or so. The ground floor is occupied by the Skipton Building Society and I suppose that the upper floors are residential.
The Village Arcade
This picturesque venue is called the Village Arcade and in contains a number of boutique shops. That’s all I can say about it for now as we didn’t tarry but more or less walked straight through.
The Clock Tower
The Village Arcade is in the High Street and so is this famous landmark, the Clock Tower. Consisting of 4 stages with a roof with battlements, it is still robust despite its age and can be visited. There is some uncertainty about the date when it was built. Historic England, which has given it a Grade I listing, says it was built between 1403 and 1412 and describes it as a “secular belfry”. Hidden in that phrase are two important points: first, that the tower was not built by the church, as most were, but was funded by the townsfolk and tradesmen, and second, that the tower may not have had a clock face until much later, possibly as late as 1450.
If there was no clock face, what was the point of the tower? It has been seen as a symbol of defiance on the part of the townsfolk towards the Abbey: the tower’s clock directly faces the Abbey Church. There is no doubt that there was anger and resentment felt towards the ecclesiastical foundation which boiled over into violence on more than one occasion. The theory is that the tower enabled the town to keep time without relying on the Abbey and was also a symbol of their self-reliance and resistance to its power. For more details see here and, a longer read, here.
The Tudor Tavern
Currently occupied by a Thai restaurant, this lovely old building is known as the Tudor Tavern and, as one might expect, has received the accolade of a Grade II* listing. One needs to be cautious about accepting buildings with woodwork and plaster façades, even when they have wonky roofs, as genuine Tudor. This one is so and, I think, charmingly obviously so. It’s designation as a tavern comes from the fact that there was indeed a tavern here in times past and, seeing how buildings rapidly change their purposes, there might well be one again in the future’.
The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban
We continued down the hill and thus came to the august building known officially as the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban or, more commonly, as St Albans Cathedral or the Abbey. The latter designation comes from the fact that the cathedral originated with the foundation of a Benedictine abbey and monastery by King Offa in 793. This institution continued in existence until 1539 when it fell victim to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, by which time it was already in serious decline. The present cathedral building dates from the Norman period and was begun in 1077. The tomb of St Alban became a place of pilgrimage until it was destroyed and lost in the Reformation. It was rediscovered and rebuilt in the 19th century and apparently still attracts visitors today. More details of the history of the Cathedral can be found here and here (click on the headings in the left sidebar).
Top: view from outside the precinct
Middle: view from inside the precinct
Bottom: the archway and its roof
The Abbey was provided with defensive walls and a fortified gateway to control access. This was needed not least because of the dissatisfaction of the townsfolk which led to riots against the Abbey on several occasions. The first gateway was built by the 30th Abbot, Thomas de la Mere, in 1349 but was destroyed by a storm in 1362. The Abbot had a new, stronger gateway built in 1365. This is the one we see today and it is the only vestige remaining of the Abbey fortifications.
The rooms in the gateway were used as a jail and during the Peasant Revolt of 1381, rioters attacked and penetrated the gate, released prisoners and went on to attack the Abbey itself. When the Revolt fizzled out after the death of Wat Tyler, in the reprisals that followed, the leaders of the local revolt were themselves imprisoned in the gateway and later hanged before the King, Richard II. Thereafter, the gateway remained a focus a discontent and at times of unrest, the townsfolk would gather before it. Today, the rooms are used by the Grammar School.
Former Abbey National School
The Abbey National School opened in 1848 and was extended in 1874 and 1884 as student numbers increased. The school moved to new premises in 1970 and the building now houses offices. The name of the school has nothing to do with a now defunct building society (the Abbey National Building Society ceased operations in 2010) but is explained by the fact that the Abbey received a grant for the founding of the school from an organization with a rather long name: The National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church Throughout England and Wales. The original building (the part with the tall chimneys) was designed by Thomas Leverton Donaldson, one of the founders in 1834 of the Royal Institute of British Archhitects (RIBA) and the building is Grade II listed.
St Albans developed from the Roman town of Verulamium. Its name is a Romanization of the original Celtic name which is thought to have been Verulamion, the meaning of which was something like ‘Settlement of the Broad Hand’. On the site of the original Roman town there is now a splendid park called, appropriately enough, Verulamium Park. It’s most distinctive feature is its huge lake supplied with water from the River Ver. To round off our visit to St Albans, we took a stroll through the park.
Verulamium Park lake
The lake is home to a large number of water fowl which include swans, ducks, Canada geese, coots, moorhens and, on an island, nesting colonies of herons and egrets. At this time of year, many of the pairs of birds have young and these family groups make irresistible subjects for photos.
A coot family
Both parents were present, keeping a watchful eye on their two chicks as they sailed on the lake in a family group.
Coots on the nest
I think coots would easily win the Untidiest Nest Prize. They build on the water and use anything that comes to hand, including rubbish. This nest at least has been made of natural materials.
A family of Canada Geese
Coots feed mainly on the water, diving for plants and small creatures while Canada geese often graze on land. They can be found sailing with their chicks ion the water or, as here, foraging on the banks.
All the species present on the lake are used to the presence of people and not above begging for food. Notices prohibit the feeding of water fowl but many people ignore these, leading to a risk of polluting the water and the surrounding banks.
St Albans is a pleasant town and one can easily spend the day here enjoying the park, visiting the museum and exploring the historic buildings.
1The Congregational Church was absorbed into an organization called the United Reformed Church in 1972.
Copyright 2018 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.