|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
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!
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.
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!