Monday, October 27, 2014

St Albans: One for your Bucket List!

Last week one of our senior sisters encouraged me strongly to find my way (like Chaucer's pilgrims) to Canterbury before my time in England is over.  Checking online to see just what that might mean, practically speaking, I found that with my need to depend on public transit (and with my limited budget), the mother church of England and memorial of St Thomas Becket was someone out of my range. However, the website I consulted did offer quite a list of other day trips from the London area, including one that involved a train ride of only 20 minutes--and a round trip fare of £8! That I could manage.
St Albans market day, rooftop view.

The destination was St Albans, home of the protomartyr of England (you guessed it, St Alban). The website told me I could visit an ancient Cathedral with the longest nave in all the land; the intact medieval shrine of St Alban; a medieval clock tower where the enormous bell Gabriel still rings the hours; an impressive Roman-era mosaic from one of the many fine houses in old Verulamium (now a lovely stretch of park), and a busy street market. Sister Mary Lou said that she had never seen the town--and could drive us there from our Langley convent.  (The money we saved on train fare went instead for parking--we ended up paying the 24-hour parking rate because we stayed on past six hours, enjoying the town far longer than we had anticipated.)
Interesting find
in a sundries booth in
 the St Albans market.
I don't think I'll bring
this back to Boston
with me!

As I titled this post, St Albans belongs on your bucket list if you ever come to England. It is just that charming, starting with the busy Saturday market, a tradition for over 1,000 years. This is not a street market that caters to tourists, but a normal place for the locals to buy their notions, luggage, produce, meat, cheese and fish. There were two honest-to-goodness fishmonger stalls, with every kind of seafood bedded on ice chips in the bright sunlight. The butchers worked from a trailer, cutting and weighing and wrapping to order. Several cheesemongers (one of them in a trailer) made their fragrant offerings available, and there were over half a dozen produce stands with the season's best, all so reasonably priced I was ready to bring home a carload of veggies. (At the end of the day, I brought home a bagful of tiny avocados--at £2 a bargain since it was one of the green-grocer's last sales as the market closed.)

Actually, the market was the first thing we visited, given the location of thepublic parking lot. We had popped out quite close to the visitor's center, too, and picked up a walking map (and a few other things: they were having a book sale in the old courtroom). Visiting the market stalls led us right to the end of the street, where the medieval clock tower stands.  The citizens had built the tower as a kind of declaration of independence from the dominion of the monastic bell. A sign outside the tiny (4' 8" high) doorway told us that wonderful views were to be had at the top of the staircase: just £1!

The formerly grey weather was beginning to suggest that wonderful views could be had, so Sister Mary Lou and I started up the incredibly narrow winding steps, hanging on for dear life to a narrow iron railing that the medieval residents did not have access to. The first landing opened to a room with the clock mechanism. A family had actually lived in that room, with its high ceiling and incessantly moving pendulum!

We continued up (the stairs narrowing as we ascended) as the lesser bell (name unknown) tolled a quarter to twelve, making it into room that housed the two bells while the tone still hung in the air. That's where I saw the massive Gabriel. The great wheels that hold the bell in place and that it would have swung on are too rotted to serve their purpose any more. Now Gabriel is rung by a kind of hammer that strikes it on the inside. (Believe me, at high noon, you get the authentic voice of the old bell.) When we reached the observation deck, we found that the boast about the incredible views had not been an exaggeration. On one side, the full length of the bustling market; on the other, the Cathedral with its impressive nave stretching from the town into old Verulamium. In between, sagging, moss-covered roofs alternated with contemporary apartments and townhouses. We could see the path to the Cathedral, and once we were able to descend the stairs (we had to stop and tuck ourselves into the bell room or the mechanical room when we met with ascending visitors!), we ducked down that alley and into a small park on what used to be the monastic vineyard.

Many of the historical placards and literature refer dryly to "the Dissolution" that took place with such incredible rapidity after Henry VIII declared himself Head of the English Church in 1534: St Albans Abbey was despoiled just five years later (although Cardinal Wolsey had done a good deal of despoiling on his own, completely unrelated to the King's great matter). Within the Cathedral itself, the evidence was as plain as the whitewashed columns, on which remnants of medieval frescoes (which came to light in 1862) have been recovered to the extent possible.

One thing in the Cathedral that was amazingly not ravaged was the shrine of St Alban, a "pedestal shrine" of which only a few remain. The new red silk canopy covered the reliquary (in 2002 a relic of St Alban's bone was restored to the shrine). Remnants of frescoed roses can still be seen on the columns of the chapel--the rose is the symbol of St Alban. (Interestingly also, the red and white roses of Lancaster and York decorate the tower ceiling.)

Sister Mary Lou and I spent several hours in the Cathedral, enjoying lunch in the "Abbot's Kitchen" cafe in the new visitor's center. I have to admit I also enjoyed the gift shop, where I picked up some interesting things to try: ginger jam, orange curd and onion jam. (I'm so grateful to my friends back in Chicago who provided me the funds for these little extras!)

On our way back to the car (it would take us almost two hours to get there--we happily paused at anything that looked interesting along the way), we stopped to see the Roman-era mosaics of what had been a sumptuous home in the 400's or so. The room had radiant heat (they called it, in a Greek expression, hypocaust: heat from below); you can see where one of the vents collapsed. Nearby St Michaels, a medieval church built with Roman scraps was closed: a disappointment. So we moved on. Meandering by many a quaint old house, we got back to the market, which by now was closing. Vendors (like this fishmonger) were loudly offering last-minute deals.
We walked the entire length of the market again, this time visiting the church at the end, St Peter's. They were preparing for an organ concert, but the parishioners on hand welcomed us very graciously and pointed out some of the church's more interesting features. The parish was founded in the early medieval period, though little remains of the early structure. Of its precious medieval stained glass, only two intact images remain; the fragments of the rest have been fitted together to preserve them, but without the sense coming through. (What I found most moving at St Peter's was its lovely churchyard--more about that at the end of the week!)

And so St Peter's allowed us to end the day in tranquility and recollection (tranquility that lasted until we saw the charge for parking, that is!), and with a message for you: St Albans is one for your bucket list!


Maureen in Belfast said...

My brother married an Italian girl from St Albans. So I spent two nights there. I had no idea it was so interesting - I did find the cathedral however. Please pass on my greetings to Sister Mary Lou -I called my first dolly Mary Lou.

Best wishes,
Maureen in Belfast

Sister Mary Lou said...

Sister Anne you are a great writer!!! I really enjoyed reading this and your photos. it was like being there again. One of my favourite memories of the great time you were here! I will definitely go back ... and remember this perfect day!