A few years ago, we set out early for a visit to 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.
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 as we had not really researched them before we left, we had only the briefest of outlines. I remembered vaguely that he was a cephalophore, one whose voice had continued after his beheading… and that a spring had welled from the ground where his head had rolled; a common motif in the stories of the saints that seems to tie them to tales older than Christianity.
Our problem with St Albans had 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 really impinged upon on our adventures. They came, they saw, they conquered… and then they went home.
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 on our travels and we were having lunch just a few miles away… and, Romans or not, we had pretty much run out of excuses. But we would only have time for the Abbey… Rome would have to wait.
We wandered through the town, passing beneath the fifteenth-century 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.
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.
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.
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, the tower above 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.
Although the town has been a centre of Christian worship and pilgrimage for over seventeen hundred years, the current Abbey church, unusual in that it is both Cathedral and serving Parish church, is a mere baby at a mere 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.
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.
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.
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…