St. Albans' Sacred Place in History

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I've lived in Tokyo, traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railroad and built an igloo in the snowy wilderness of British Columbia, but the only trip I make almost every year is to St. Albans, my hometown.

These visits usually are about staying in touch with friends and family. But last time, with a day to spare in January, I decided to become a tourist--albeit one who knows his way around.

St. Albans, 30 minutes northwest of London by train, is not as popular as some other historic English towns. But it has at least as much to offer, thanks to its rich, lively history. Here around AD 50, the Romans built Verulamium, their third-largest settlement in what is now Britain. St. Albans is also where the Magna Carta was drafted; where England's only pope, Nicholas Breakspear (Adrian IV), was born around 1100; and where King John II of France was imprisoned in the 14th century.

Under a brilliant blue sky, I set off for the thousand-year-old Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban, known to locals as the Abbey. At 550 feet, it's longer than two 747s nose to tail, and it dominates the skyline like a giant too large for a quiet town of about 67,000.

The structure combines an unlikely array of architectural features, from Norman to Victorian neo-Gothic. It was built in 1077, 11 years after the Battle of Hastings established the Normans as rulers of England. But its story really begins circa 209, with a soldier from Verulamium named Alban.

Religious nonconformity was punishable by death in the Roman Empire, but Alban converted to Christianity anyway. On a hill not far from here, he was beheaded. Britain's first Christian martyr later was canonized, and a vast abbey bearing his name was constructed near the site of his execution. Rebuilt in the 11th century, the abbey still contains the ancient red Verulamium bricks used in its original construction. You can see these narrow bricks in the squat central tower, one of the finest surviving Norman structures in the country.

I found the cavernous abbey as cool and tranquil as I had remembered. Strains of a rehearsing choir echoed against the walls, and scattered individuals in silent reflection reminded me that this is still a working church. Colorful and stylized 13th century Norman paintings of biblical scenes have been discovered under layers of whitewash on many of the towering pillars, which are still being restored.

The stone shrine, thought to contain the sacred remains of St. Alban, also has been rehabilitated. It was smashed to pieces in 1539, after Henry VIII violently ended the pope's jurisdiction in England and encouraged people to ransack houses of worship. Pieces of the shrine were recovered during excavations around the abbey in the 19th century, and the structure is revered again.

My favorite feature of the abbey has always been the creaky wooden steps that lead to a platform overlooking the shrine. As a child, I used to imagine I could see a solitary monk hidden in the shadows, taking his turn at keeping a continual watch over Alban's remains.

The abbey's Chapter House extension, opened by the queen in 1982, houses a refectory with a friendly staff and home cooking. This is the place for piping hot tea or coffee along with sausage rolls, sandwiches and cakes. It's a comfortable and busy self-service cafe, and tables often fill quickly.

For a bird's-eye view of St. Albans, I made my way to the clock tower, a short walk from the abbey toward the town center. The slim, flint-faced structure was built between 1403 and 1412 and is said to be the only free-standing medieval belfry in England. Residents constructed the tower to assert their secular freedom in defiance of the abbey, marking their own hours and sounding a curfew bell, an important expression of political power.

I climbed the 93 stone steps toward the top. To the right loomed the abbey, representing the town's past. To the left, the current population was engaged in a far more modern occupation: shopping.

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Shoppers have been coming to St. Albans' twice-weekly street market since it was established more than a millennium ago. Started as a farmers' buy-and-sell, the colorful market is now like an elongated outdoor department store running the length of St. Peter's Street, the town's main thoroughfare. Vendors at more than 170 stalls offer antiques, secondhand books, shoe repair, jewelry, clothing, fresh fish and gourmet pastries.

The place brought back memories. When I was 18, I ran a stall selling gaudily painted wooden duck ornaments, parrot-shaped earrings and glow-in-the-dark surfing shorts. These imported Indonesian goods were original and trendy, and profits were healthy most weeks. When business was slow, I would wear the brightest pair of shorts on my head and wander in front of the stall trying to drum up trade. On this visit vendors didn't need to go to such great lengths; business seemed brisk everywhere.

It's a good idea to walk the length of the market and compare prices before buying. If you don't want to fight a crowd, skip the market on Saturday in favor of Wednesday, which is less busy, though smaller. The best bargains in fresh fruit, vegetables and cut flowers come as the market begins to wind down after 3 p.m.

After snacking on a peppery brie-stuffed tart and packing away a lattice-topped spinach pie for later in the day, I headed off in search of more history. Because St. Albans wears its medieval heritage on its sleeve, it's easy to overlook the earlier Roman presence, remains of which lie away from the town center.

The centrally located Museum of St. Albans covers the town's history.

Historians think the settlement of Verulamium was a vital outpost of the Roman Empire. Extensive archeological digs between 1930 and 1934 showed that a sophisticated town stood here, housing hundreds of people in dozens of brick homes that were palatial for the era. Remnants of shops, temples and paved roads--believed to have stood for 300 years--also were unearthed.

The ruins are protected in 100-acre Verulamium Park, where the foundations of buildings lie within gentle green hills. The only visible evidence of the ancient town is a crumbling stretch of wall and the outline of its London gateway.

I found it hard to imagine the bustling settlement that stood here, but a visit to the recently expanded Verulamium Museum quickly solved that problem. Exhibits showcase hundreds of pieces from everyday Roman life: coins, toys, clay pipes, glass vases, fine jewelry and decorated earthenware pots. The museum puts the artifacts in context by providing vivid descriptions and placing them in rooms that depict a wealthy merchant in his townhouse, a carpenter busy at work and a woman preparing food in her kitchen.

The museum also houses some of the most intricate floor mosaics found outside the Mediterranean. Carefully recovered from the buried villas of Verulamium's most affluent citizens, these highly patterned and detailed mosaics--some more than 10 feet across--depict Roman gods and fanciful nature scenes.

Nearby at St. Michael's Church lay more evidence of the Roman occupation. Like a reclining skeleton, the ruins here are only a vague outline of the Roman theater that stood on the site. But with my imagination fired by the museum visit, I sat on a grass bank facing the stage and, as the sun set, daydreamed of a chattering audience awaiting the performance.

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Before the curtain fell on my day, I wanted one more glimpse of the past. I found it at dozens of St. Albans' medieval inns, built to serve horse-drawn coaches passing through the town on their way to or from London. Many of these public houses still operate, and some even retain their coaching yards and stable buildings.

To learn about their colorful history, I took a self-guided walking tour with a booklet from the local tourist information center. I looked in on the cozy, Tudor-framed Rose & Crown and Six Bells pubs, a short walk from the Roman theater. Then I trekked back toward the center of town, passing the 19th century Black Lion Inn and the leaning timber walls of the Tudor Tavern, a 100-year-old bar in a 400-year-old building.

I learned that King John II of France had been briefly imprisoned near the Fleur de Lys pub after his capture at Poitiers in 1356, and that a ghostly brigade of Roman soldiers reportedly had been seen marching through the basement of a local inn.

Some of St. Albans' best pubs are hidden on back streets, away from the large, bustling establishments in the central part of town. The Lower Red Lion on Fishpool Street is a great spot for beer drinkers. It has a celebrated selection of ales, including rare and unusual beers from smaller breweries. On warm summer evenings, patrons enjoy their drinks outside at the Blue Anchor, a short walk from the Verulamium museum. The Garibaldi, unlike most pubs here, serves dinner--gourmet meals, actually, and a popular Sunday roast.

I finished the day with a drink at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, so named because it used to be a venue for cockfighting.

It's said to be the oldest public house in the world. Although the current building is Tudor in design, the original structure was built in 950. The low ceiling at the bar, built in an age when people were shorter, forced me to stoop to place my order.

Appreciation for one's hometown often comes with age and reflection. As I sat at a dark wood table, I vowed that on my next visit to St. Albans, I would reserve more time to explore it.

John Lee is a freelance writer living in Vancouver, Canada.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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