St Albans… ‘render unto Caesar’

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Tuesday morning looked promising as we headed out early for St Albans. The beautiful sky soon clouded over, though, leaving us with a chill and persistent rain. We’d been meaning to visit the town for a long time, knowing that the history and stories associated with the place tied in heavily with many areas of our adventures…not least because of St Alban himself.

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Recorded as the first British Christian martyr, the saint was beheaded for his faith in Roman Verulamium, now the town of St Albans. There are many versions of his story and we had not really researched them before we left and had only the briefest of outlines. I remembered vaguely that he was a cephalophore, one whose voice had continued after the beheading…and that a spring had welled from the ground where the head had rolled; a common motif in the stories of the saints that seems to tie them to tales older than Christianity.

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The problem with St Albans has been the Romans. There are some wonderful relics of Verulamium preserved there; indeed, Roman stone was used to build much of the later town and the Abbey… but the Romans have not, as yet, really impinged upon on our adventures. They came, they saw, they conquered…and then they went home.

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It is true that their influence on British culture and history, both secular and religious, has been profound, but so far we have not felt the call to look at the interlopers in any great detail. So, St Albans had been put on a simmering back burner for quite some time…but the saint’s name had kept on cropping up recently…and we were having lunch just a few miles away…and we’d pretty much run out of excuses. But we would only have time for the Abbey…Rome would have to wait.

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We wandered through the town, passing beneath the 15thC clock tower and through the undeniably pretty streets with the jostling facades of centuries vying for attention. The rain was not easing, the day had not lost its chill, but a hot Cornish pasty that constituted second breakfast helped relieve the gloom as we headed towards the Abbey.

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Haiku were posted at strategic points along the way, by writers from Parkinson’s UK, and as we entered the old Vintry Garden where medieval monks had once been interred, the recent excess of rain was immortalised in verse.

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It was from here we had the first real sight of the Abbey. It is a beautiful old building, but seemed rather ‘clean’ in some indefinable way. Lacking the usual plethora of medieval carvings and weathered stone from this vantage point, it did little to ignite our enthusiasm.

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Just a few feet further on, though, the history of the Abbey began to come into view. The unmistakable colour of Roman stone and tiles recycled from the ruins of Verulamium mix with the flint which is the only real source of durable local stone. The nave is the longest in England and the tower of the Crossing has stood at the centre of the church for a thousand years and is the only such tower to remain standing in Britain from that time.

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Although the town has been a centre of Christian worship and pilgrimage for over 1700 years, the current Abbey church… which is unusual as being both Cathedral and serving Parish church… is a mere baby, just around a thousand years old. The hands of many men have worked on this building in the intervening centuries, including those of our old friend George Gilbert Scott and his son George Oldrid Scott. You get to recognise their touch, though here it is overlaid with the artistic disagreements of the Victorian era.

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It is the older history that attracts us though and although the rose window is the work of the Victorian architect Grimthorpe, beneath it the arched windows lined with the red of Roman bricks speak of an earlier time when the church was not an architectural battleground.

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Dragons watched from the western towers as we walked around to the front of the church in search of the visitor’s entrance. By a side door a vestmented cleric waited in silence with a black clad gentleman… the parish church would shortly be in service for a funeral and the east end of the Abbey closed to gawping tourists and researchers with cameras to serve its true purpose within the community.

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As we entered the great portal, flanked by the symbols of the evangelists, I think we already knew we would have to come back and see what we would not have time to see on this visit. And when we finally made it through the doors, there was no question at all…

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About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
This entry was posted in Books, Churches, Don and Wen, History, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to St Albans… ‘render unto Caesar’

  1. Pingback: St Albans… ‘render unto Caesar’ | oshriradhekrishnabole

  2. Another tour excellent in prose and pics

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  3. Your bits of knowledge on architecture is tremendous. It is always a lovely journey into your world whenever I read your travel blog. Very profound.

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  4. Pingback: St Albans… ‘render unto Caesar’ | O LADO ESCURO DA LUA

  5. jenanita01 says:

    I have never been to St Albans, and loved walking around it with you, Sue. Thanks for the invite…

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  6. olganm says:

    And another place I haven’t visited yet, Sue. Adding it on…

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  7. Pingback: St Albans… ‘render unto Caesar’ – NICE TRIP WORLD

  8. Reblogged this on Life in the Realm of Fantasy and commented:
    Photographer and author, Sue Vincent, takes us on a journey through British history via the architecture of St. Albans. It is in this village where the real influence of the Romans can still be seen. Roman and Victorian building styles collide and create something uniquely British.

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  9. Mary Smith says:

    I like your phrase ‘architectural battleground’. Look forward to reading more about the Abbey when you next visit.

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  10. Helen Jones says:

    Lovely photos, Sue – it is a beautiful cathedral, isn’t it? Layers of history all around 🙂
    Oh, and remember how I told you and Stuart the snake story? It turns out my Celtic Zodiac animal is also a snake. Signs, signs, everywhere signs…

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  11. A beautiful place…nice pictures and narration… 🙂

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  12. cmblackwood says:

    I really love the photography in this post. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  13. macjam47 says:

    You have to go back and finish what you have started here. So interesting. I love that you have structures that are older than the US. Fascinating!

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  14. dgkaye says:

    Fascinating history and photos Sue. You would be a most excellent tour guide! 🙂

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  15. noelleg44 says:

    Impressive cathedral! I just finished a historical novel about the Romans in Britannia, and can’t wait for you to explore the Roman part of St Albans!

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  16. kirizar says:

    A lovely travelogue with beautiful photos. I do wish you had posted one of the haiku verses though. I had to wonder how rain would be immortalized in a city that seems frequently bound by the element.

    Like

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