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.
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.