A Historic City
St Albans is the oldest town in Hertfordshire, having experienced over 2000 years of occupation. The name Verlamion was applied to it by the Celts and meant ‘settlement above the marsh’. When the Romans came to stay they altered the name to Verulamium. It grew to be one of the largest Roman settlements on the island until its destruction by Queen Boudicca (AD 60-61). However, the town was rebuilt by the Roman afterwards and lasted until they left Britain in AD 410 after which it fell into decay.
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In its more modern form it began as a monastic settlement named after St Alban, who was executed here in AD 209 by the Romans. Thus the cathedral and town were named for him on the site of his martyrdom. The monastery and a market were established in AD900-950. The churches of St Michael, St Peter, and St Stephen were built by Abbot Ulsinus of the monastery. The town and monastery were in constant conflict. This conflict was ended with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1529.
The clock tower in the town centre was built in 1403-12 by the people as a symbol of their freedom from the church. It rang the curfew until 1863. Climb 93 steep, small, spiral stairs to the top for views over the city. Just opposite the clock tower is the site of the former Fleur de Lys inn, built in the 1400s to house the many pilgrims who visited the town to view the shrine of St Alban. Other historic inns exist today in one form or another.
The town took the king’s side during the civil war. Regardless, St Albans prospered and industry grew in the area. Railways, brewing, and manufacturing were added in the 18th and 19th centuries. St Albans became an official city and the abbey became an official cathedral in 1877 when the town received a royal charter.
Today much of the history of the town can be seen by visitors. A short train ride from London, it makes for an enjoyable day or two day visit. Start with the museum of St Albans where the city’s history is detailed from medieval times with collections and displays. A collection of trade tools, the Salaman collection, is especially noteworthy.
The Verulamium Museum is England’s best and not to be missed. Extensive Roman remains vie with re-created rooms to provide several hours interest. Databases linked to touch screens, outstanding mosaics, and a shop add to the attractions. The Roman theatre nearby is the largest excavation of its kind in Britain. A 3rd century townhouse sits on the site along with an underground shrine and a row of shops. A hypocaust complete with mosaic and underfloor heating system sits across the park.
The cathedral, built on a hill at the supposed martyrdom site, has several architectural styles—first it was Saxon, then Norman, and finally, restored by the Victorians. Bricks from the ruins of the Roman town can be seen in its tower. Rounded Norman arches and pillars were also built of Roman brick. Cathedral paintings date mostly from the 13th century. Monks had a secret “hidey hole” to keep watch on the shrine as pilgrims were wont to snitch bits of cloth from it. St Alban’s bells have rung since it was built in the 11th century. Still in use is the Sanctus bell from 1290. The former abbey gateway was used as a prison after the dissolution. It is now part of St Albans school.
A former watermill, Kingsbury, sits on the river Ver by Verulamium park. The original building was the abbot’s malt mill, but the present building dates from the 16th century. On show is the millwheel and machinery. A waffle house occupies the main floor. A different kind of museum is the organ museum, a permanent working exhibition of mechanical musical instruments.
To get a real sense of the history of the town and its buildings take one of the walking tours on offer in the summer.
Cathedral and Abbey church
Tel. 0 1727 860 780 (information desk)
Open year round, daily, 8.30am-5.45pm
Exhibition, guided tours, tower tours, book shop, café, St Albans Story multi-media presentation
Website: St Albans Cathedral
Tel. 0 1727 751 826
Open: Easter-Oct, Sat, Sun, BH, 10.30am-5pm
Museum of St Albans
Tel. 0 1727 819 340
Open: closed until spring 2018 for redevelopment at the Town Hall
Website: St Albans Museums
320 Camp Rd; two miles from St Albans city centre
Tel. 03003 65 65 65
Open: special times only, posted on website
Website: St Albans Theatre Organ Museum
Tel. 0 1727 751 810
Open: Mon-Sat, 10am-5.30pm; Sun, 2-5.30pm
Website: St Albans Museums
Tel. 0 1727 835 035
Open: summer, 10am-5pm; winter, 10am-4pm
Website: Roman Theatre
The Town Hall, Market Place
Tel: 0 1727 864 511
Open: Mon-Sat, 10am-4.30pm; on Sun for special events only
Website: St Albans District Council
Website for Tourism: Enjoy St Albans
Tourist Information Centre
Alban Arena, Civic Close (temporary until 2018)
St Albans AL1 3LD
Tel: 0 1727 864 511
Open: Mon-Sat, 10am-4pm; on Sun for special events only
St Albans is 23 minutes from London Kings Cross on the Thameslink
service through Central London. The Silverlink service via Watford connects St Albans with the North London line and the West Coast main line to London Euston and Scotland.
All photos copyright by Barbara Ballard