London is one of the most popular destinations for American travelers. It’s big, exciting, and there’s always something going on. Sadly, many visitors never get beyond the city limits. There are plenty of smaller towns just a short journey away that are worth visiting on a day trip or longer stay. St. Albans in Hertfordshire north of London is my favorite.
Located just a twenty-minute train ride from King’s Cross, St. Albans feels a world away from the big city. There are woods, quiet lanes, and friendly pubs. The air is even breathable!
St. Albans has been a pilgrimage center since Celtic times. When the Romans conquered Britain, they built the city of Verulamium here. Part of the city wall still pokes out of the grass in the town park, and nearby you can see the excavated remains of the old Roman theatre and other buildings. An excellent museum explains the history of the Roman settlement and occasionally hosts reenactments by “Roman” soldiers. Check out the museum website for the next event.
Since medieval times the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban has been a major pilgrimage center. St. Alban was a Christian resident of Roman Verulamium in the 3rd century AD. One day he saw a fellow Christian fleeing from the soldiers and he helped him escape by exchanging clothes with him. St. Alban was caught and marched up the hill overlooking town and beheaded. It’s said that when the sword cleaved through his neck, the executioner’s eyes popped out! There’s a wonderfully graphic painting of this inside the cathedral. A monastery was founded on the site of St. Alban’s martyrdom in the year 793, and the oldest bits of the current cathedral date to the 11th. You’ll notice that many of the bricks in the church are actually reused from crumbling Roman buildings, poetic justice indeed!
%Gallery-83298%The town itself makes for a relaxed and very English experience. There are numerous timber-frame, thatched-roof houses dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, especially along Fishpool St., and a 600 year-old clock tower that you can climb up to get a good view of the town and surrounding countryside.
If you’re feeling thirsty try Ye Olde Fighting Cocks next to the duck pond in the park. It’s one of the many pubs that claims to be “the oldest in Britain”. While it’s impossible to tell which pub is truly the oldest, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks certainly is a strong contender. The central octagonal section dates to about 1400, and there may have been monks brewing here as early as 793. The pub gets its name from the cockfights that used to take place here. One of the stuffed champions is on display.
There’s enough to do and see in St. Albans that you might consider staying overnight. I’d suggest The Lower Red Lion. This 17th century coaching inn is still much as it was. I love these old buildings with their narrow stairs, small-paned windows, undulating floors, and resident ghosts. The pub downstairs is one of the best places I’ve seen to get real ales. The last time I was there they had seven guest ales on tap. The kitchen will cook you up a hearty meal to go with your pint. There are only seven rooms and it’s best to book well in advance.
So if London is beginning to grate on your nerves, get out of town! St. Albans is a good place to start.