Today we went to St Albans, also known as “Snorbens” to its fans, and, nearly 2 thousand years ago, as Verulamium to the Romans.
A slight damper was put on the day by sudden onset of lower back pain as I was getting ready. It is really painful and I have difficulty bending or even sitting down and getting up again. The pain hit me suddenly without any apparent cause, in a repeat of an incident that occurred around the time of Sidney’s funeral. However, I was not going to put off our outing so I dug out the walking stick I bought last time and set out, hoping for the best.
In St Albans, the street market was in full swing and was very busy. It is a very good market with quality goods of all kinds. I was tempted into buying a necklace of tiger’s eye beads, not so much to wear as a necklace as to use the beads for bracelets.
Alongside the market, we came across this colourful character, who kindly consented to be photographed in return for a contribution and offered to play me a song of my choice, “not necessarily French”. He wasn’t actually French himself, at least to judge from his accent.
As it was nearly midday, we went to the famous Clock Tower (built between 1403 and 1412) to wait for it to chime the hour. It gave twelve robust strokes on its bell which is even older than the clock itself as it dates from 1335.
The Clock Tower can be visited and it is worth doing so, though we did not visit it today.
In Romeland (yes, it is called that), we discovered this strange doorway, steps leading to a blank wall. Is this the ghost’s entrance?
The modern name of the city, St Albans, derives from the Christian saint of that name. This is a pity, as it gives the impression that the city’s importance is limited to its religious connections when in fact it has a far more impressive and significant history than that.
Prior to the Roman invasion, it was part of the territory of the Catuvellauni, one of the strongest, richest and most powerful British tribes. When the Romans occupied Britain, it seems likely that the Catuvellauni sided with them in return for remaining self-governing. Verulamium, as it was then called, became an important Roman settlement and trading centre.
Unfortunately, very little remains of what was for the times a magnificent Roman walled city. The Christians vandalized and destroyed the Roman buildings in order to use the materials for their own new structures.
We had two destinations in mind. The first was Verulamium Park with its lake and water fowl. This is a really beautiful place to go, especially on a sunny day like today. There are several species of ducks and geese, coots, moorhens, swans, herons and even visiting gulls.
The great temptation, of course, is to go with a bag of bread to feed to the birds. A notice asks people not to do this, because the bread poisons the water and causes pollution problems.
Naturally, the British public pays no heed to this and the place is cluttered with bread. So much so, that the birds largely ignore it. For those (including us) who like to feed the birds, there are two feeding places where you can give them grain. Naturally, you have to buy this yourself.
Another bye-law requires dogs to be kept on a lead. So what do dog owners do when they enter the park? They let their dogs off their leads of course, and think it funny when they chase to water fowl. And they wonder why dog owners get such bad press.
Our second destination was the Verulamium Museum, described as “The Museum of everyday life in Roman Britain”.
Housed in a purpose-built modern premises, the Museum avoids the modern dumbing-down so prevalent nationally these days and does a creditable job of presenting and explaining the city’s important Roman past. As well as the usual cases of exhibits, there are videos, sound recordings, information panels and tableaux illustrating aspects of Roman domestic life.
It is quite difficult to reconstruct past societies (see my previous post) and all too easy to read our own modern assumptions into them. This is nowhere more true than where the society under study speaks a completely different language from ours and is predicated on a very different philosophical, political and religious matrix.
We cannot avoid translating their words into our own language and, therefore, translating their ideas into concepts that can be understood in our own terms. Despite this difficulty, the Verulamium Museum does a good job of putting together a picture of Roman domestic life in Verulamium.