Our 1st excursion into the surrounding counties from London was to the historic city of St Albans, just half an hour away by train…
Status: St Albans District, Hertfordshire, City, England
Travel: Thameslink (London St Pancras – St Albans)
Eating & Sleeping: N/A
Attractions: St Albans Cathedral, Clock Tower, Old Town Hall, Abbey Gateway, St Albans School, Market Square, Trinity United Reform Church, The Robin Hood, Corn Exchange, Tudor Buildings, Verulamium etc
Arriving at St Alban’s train station half an hour after we left London St Pancras International, we began the mile walk towards the City Centre, for some of the cities most famous landmarks. On the way, we passed a number of buildings of interest, starting with Trinity United Reform Church, just up the road.
This stunning red brick building grew out of the need for more space for the local congregation, which originally met in a small Chapel over on Spicer Street, just a few streets away. In 1896 a plot of land where the new Church now stands was purchased, although building work wouldn’t begin until 1901, culminating in a grand opening ceremony in 1903. The building became a focal point of the community, until a large fire swept through it in 1981, gutting the interior furnishings, and destroying the roof. Happily the fire occurred during a restoration, rather than during a service, so no 1 was hurt. It was soon to be rebuilt, and it’s unique tower still graces the skyline of the City, and it looks quite unlike any other Church we have seen before.
Continuing on towards the City centre, we passed “The Robin Hood”, a charming local pub on Victoria Street, an old lane only named as such in 1897 upon the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901). “The Robin Hood” is 1 of 4 different pubs to have existed on the road, although it was 1 of the 1st to open, sometime prior to 1872.
If you fancy a trip to this lovely old building you can visit their official website here, for opening times and menus.
Further up the road, as we approached the central Market Square, on the Western edge of which sits the Old Town Hall, shown above in white, we found St Alban’s former Public Library, a fantastic brick building, now an Irish Pub called O’Neills. The Library was financed by our old friend Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919, Scottish Philanthropist & Businessman from Dunfermline), opening in 1911.
The Library itself would later move into the new Maltings Shopping Centre, an open air shopping centre located pretty much directly across from it’s original home.
Instead of heading into the Market Square (which would be our last stop later), we turned left and took a detour towards St Alban’s famous Cathedral, via the old Clock Tower on London Road. The rest of the city has grown up around it, although the Tower predates much of the city centre, having been built between 1403 – 1412.
It is officially known as a Belfry, so it may possibly have been part of an old Church on the site from medieval times, but it now stands alone, the only surviving building of its type in the whole of England. In 1335 a large bell was added, used to signal a curfew across the city. It’s a stunning landmark, and is in remarkably good condition, from the outside at least. As far as I know it is possible to climb the Tower as well, and I imagine it would offer some brilliant views of the city.
The adjacent building, shown on the previous picture to the right of the Clock Tower, is also historically interesting, as it is the site of a long held tradition in St Albans. It apparently marks the place of an old house where the King of France, John II (1319 – 1364) was incarcerated in 1356. He had been captured by the English during the Battle of Poitiers, a notable battle amongst many which made up the “Hundred Years War”, fought between the English and French. The captured King was brought to England, and supposedly held here until he was moved to more suitable accommodation in Hertford Castle, and later the Tower of London.
Around the end of the century the original building had been demolished, with a new Inn called the “Fleur-De-Lys”, which still stands today, completed in 1440. A large plaque on the exterior of the building states that the Inn was built by St Albans Abbey (which would become St Albans Cathedral), presumably to serve a growing congregation.
Just next to the Clock Tower, as you approach George Street, is a stunning example of a Tudor building, which can be found in abundance in the city. You can of course tell a genuine Tudor building from a later Mock Tudor attempt, as it will be bulging or sagging in various places where the wood has dried and deformed over the centuries.
This particular 1 was once a Coaching Inn, but is now home to a Thai Restaurant, called Thai Square. We have been to a few towns and cities across the UK which showcase some wonderful Tudor Architecture, which many people associate with the type of building shown above, including the town of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.
The most famous landmark in the city of St Albans has to be it’s enormous Cathedral, whose overall length is 2nd only to Winchester Cathedral in the entire country. This beautiful building can trace it’s history as far back as Saxon times, when a new Abbey was founded here. Little of this survives however, as the main building you see today was built under the rule of Paul of Caen, the 14th Bishop of St Albans Abbey, between 1077 – 1089, with the central arches inside typical of this period. It would later be extended by the end of the following century, and extensively restored over its lifetime leading to new stonework etc across the structure, particularly after the earthquake of 1250 which severely damaged it.
Of course the fate of the Abbey was determined in 1539, when King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) instigated the Dissolution of the Monasteries as part of his split from the Catholic Church in Rome, creating the Church of England instead.
The Monks were expelled, and many of the old Abbey buildings were taken for other uses, with the Gatehouse becoming a Jail for example. It wouldn’t become a religious building for worship again until 1553 when it was sold back to St Albans by King Edward VI (1537 – 1553), later being restored. It was now the local Parish Church, which was eventually granted Cathedral status in 1877 when the new Diocese of St Albans was created to cover Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and various areas of London.
The Gatehouse still exists, at the North end of the Cathedral Yard. As stated earlier, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Gatehouse was used as a Prison, from sometime around 1553. It was eventually incorporated into St Alban’s School, shown below, and the area shown above now houses the Schools Departments of History & Economics.
The 1st picture of the Gate shows it looking from the Cathedral Yard, whilst the 2nd is from the road outside, and also features the local War Memorial, erected after World War I in memory of all those from the City who lost their lives in the Great War.
Just to the right of the War Memorial, lies the rest of the aforementioned St Albans School, which was founded as part of the Abbey in 948 by the 6th Abbot, Wulsin. It inhabits the rest of the building attached to the Gatehouse, which it moved into in 1871, having previously inhabited the Lady Chapel inside the Abbey itself, and parts of the Gatehouse. The Reformation saw the School split off from the Abbey, as the Abbot was in de facto charge of the School, although the then Abbot, after losing his job, became the Headmaster instead. It would eventually return to the Abbey in the 16th Century until 1871, when the entire School moved into the Gatehouse, where it remains today.
The city centre of St Albans is littered with interesting finds, and returning to the Clock Tower, and then heading up “Market Place” we passed along a pleasant cobbled road bound on both sides by various historical buildings.
On the right you can see another Tudor building, whilst opposite it lies the old Corn Exchange, a lovely sandstone building built by the then Mayor, John Lewis, in 1857. It now houses various shops, which means it does continue the tradition of a Corn Exchange, the trading of goods and services. Many of the streets in this area of the city feel quite tightly packed, as a lot of places where in Medieval times.
Continuing up “Market Place” towards the actual Market Square itself, we turned to look back the way we had come, getting a stunning view of the central tower of the Cathedral, complemented by the cities famous Clock Tower directly to the left. The skyline here is just incredible, and is 1 of the areas of the city where you can just enjoy St Albans’s heritage, as there are no modern developments in sight, just ancient Norman, Tudor and Victorian structures.
We soon reached the Market Square, marked at the Southwesterly side by the Neo-Classical Town Hall building, designed by George Smith (1782 – 1869, English Architect) and completed in the early 1830’s. It became the new home of St Albans Borough Council, which in 1974 was expanded to cover an area outside of the city itself, across the new City of St Albans District. By this time however (1961) the council had already vacated the building, and moved into the Civic Centre which opened the same year, where it remains today, over on St Peters Street.
As we gazed around the Market Square, we imagined the various stalls and traders that once inhabited it, after the City was granted a Royal Charter in 1553. Sadly we had come on a Monday, so we missed the present day Market which is open on both Wednesdays, and Saturdays.
St Albans is a stunning little city, located just North of Watford on the very edge of London, in rural Hertfordshire. There are good transport connections here, being so close to the Capital, with regular buses into London and Watford. The Thameslink train service also provides regular trains into major London stations such as St Pancras, and then across the city with various stops on the way to Kent.
St Albans is also just a 50 minute drive North from London Heathrow, the largest/busiest airport in the United Kingdom, with Internal, European and International flights leaving every day. Similarly, another major London Airport, London Stansted, is located 50 minutes North of St Albans in Essex, again handly a variety of flights.
If you’re visiting London, or just fancy a day out in Hertfordshire, then St Albans is the perfect place to go, mixing shopping, famous landmarks and history together. You could also visit the remains of the Roman City of Verulamium, located just outside the City centre near the River Ver. This predated the City built around the new Abbey, and was destroyed by Boudicca (British Tribe Leader) around 61 AD. For us, it was time to move on, as our next excursion from London was to England’s newest (51st) city, Chelmsford in Essex…