Tuesday, 3 March 2015

St Albans

The cathedral from Verulamium Park

I was so pleased with my recent outing to Worcester, that when another free day presented itself I immediately formed a plan to visit another cathedral city, St Albans. I parked near the leisure centre and set off across Verulamium Park, soon getting a nice view of the Cathedral on its hill.

At the far side of the park I visited St Michael's church. It is an ancient church with the nave and chancel walls dating back to Saxon times. The tower and west end however are the result of a restoration by Edmund Beckett, the first Baron Grimthorpe, in 1898. He was a lawyer and amateur architect.

Close to the church is the Verulamium Museum. The small museum has various exhibits concerning everyday life in Roman times, but its main glory seems to me to be the simply wonderful mosaics of which this is just one superb example.

Carrying on in the same direction brings you to the Roman Theatre. It was built in about 140AD and is the only example in Britain of a Roman  theatre with a stage rather than an Amphitheatre.

Next I walked down St Michael's St, over the 18th century bridge over the River Ver, past the old Mill and turned right into Fishpool St, which Pevsner found to be the "most pleasurable street to walk down". There is a wide variety of houses of different periods to enjoy.

Fishpool St gives way to Romeland Hill and on the right is the imposing gatehouse of the former Abbey, which dates from about 1360. To its right are the buildings of Abbey School, built in the early 20th century in a sympathetic style. The rest of what was a very large and prosperous abbey was destroyed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

To the left of the Abbey is the Cathedral. It looks quite splendid from this angle but is actually rather a hotch-potch. It was built as the Abbey church in the 11th century and extended towards the west in the 14th. No attempt was made to match the style of building material. Additionally, the south side of the nave had partially collapsed and was replaced at the same time.

The west front was the work of the same Lord Grimthorpe who renovated St Michael's. It too looks out of keeping from the other parts: the smooth stone clashes oddly with the rubble used for most of the nave.

Inside, the mismatch between the Norman part of the nave and the Gothic part is very clear as you look from one side to the other.

On the left hand columns, some rather nice 14th century wall paintings can be seen.

I left the Cathedral by the west door and crossed the road into Spicer St where my first Almshouses of the day were to be found. Ramshaw's Almshouses date from 1846 and are of lovely red brick construction with diaper patterning. The main door is nicely emphasised.

Now I walked up George St to reach the High Street, and immediately turned left into French Row to admire the early 15th century Clock Tower. Pevsner describes it as "one of the rare survivals of an English belfry". (This seems to indicate that it was a watch tower: the bell would be rung in the event of attack or fire.) There was once an Eleanor Cross near by.

At the end of French Row on the right in the Market Place is the "remnants" (Pevsner's word) of the Corn Exchange of 1857. They are still harmoniously proportioned.

This leads into St Peter's St, a noticeably wide High St, with the imposing Town Hall of 1831 marking one end.

At the far end of St Peter's Street is St Peters Church. This too was restored by the busy Lord Grimthorpe. It seems that the church dates from the 15th century.

Just a little further on, on the opposite side of the road, are the Pemberton Almshouses of 1627, behind a substantial gateway. The blue plaque to the right recounts the legend that Roger Pemberton endowed the almshouses in atonement for an accident in which he killed a poor widow with a bow and arrow.

Round the corner in Hatfield Road are more almshouses: the Marlborough Almshouses of 1836, founded by Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Apart from the elaborate pediment in the centre of the main block, they are remarkably unadorned.

Finally, in St Peters Rd, a turning off Hatfield Rd, I found Church Cottages, which have the look of a further set of almshouses, although I can find nothing to confirm this.

It remained only to return to the car park.

Conditions: generally bright and sunny, disturbed only by a short but unpleasant hail storm.

Distance: About 4.5 miles.

From: most of the route was from a walk on the AA website. I also used the St Albans City Trail: a leaflet with a very good map which available from the City Council website.

Rating: five stars. So much to see.

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