Saturday, December 23, 2006

An eye-popping grand day in St Albans

I'm not certain if I've said it before, but I'm sure to say it again: one of my favorite activities in London is to just walk around and take in the history and culture of the city. It's been cold, but not as freezing as I'd feared, so it's actually perfect walkin'-weather: brisk enough to keep your moving, cool enough to not make you sweaty (and you folks don't wanna smell a sweaty little stuffed bull), and cold enough so that when you stop for lunch or a cup of tea it's a major sensory delight all of its own. I've come equipped with walking tours carefully Xeroxed out of books (why carry the whole book when all you want is a few pages!), on my little walking-tour cards (handy and clever, but not very detailed), audio walking tour podcasts downloaded to my iPod (here's a great site for those). You learn a lot and you come away with a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the history of the city. Not to mention sore hooves.

London Walks banner

Like ironing shirts and building masonry, however, there's no beating a professional when you really want to do things up right, and a walking tour is no exception. That's why I continually recommend to anyone who is going to London, without reservation, The Original London Walks, a long-running, definitive organization which runs well over a dozen different walking tours of different parts of London most every single day of the year. (Even on Christmas Day they offer two walks, and I hope to take at least one of 'em!) Take a gander at the linked website if you're heading to London: London Walks offer authoritative guided tours, most about two hours and a mile or two in duration for the (cheap) price of around £6, on such subjects as In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, Ghosts of the Old City, The Beatles's Magical Mystery Tour, pub walks, ghost walks, walks that cover nearly every single part of London, plus the most famous and the best Jack the Ripper tour out there. I can't recommend these folks highly enough: in my many travels to London, every single walking tour I've taken has been a delightful fun excursion, and leaves you feeling like you now know some wonderful history and secrets about London you don't learn in the guidebooks. You can't go wrong with 'em.

They also offer special out-of-London "Explorer Day" excursions with full-day tours to Oxford, Stonehenge, Bath, Hampton Court, Leeds Castle, Cambridge, and the proverbial many, many more. (Here's a full list.) They're a little more expensive and involve taking (and paying for) a BritRail train trip out of London, but you still get plenty of value for money. I'm a little stuffed bull who is very careful with his pounds and pence, and yet I gleefully forked over my ten pound note and a chunky pound coin for the chance to have an Explorer Day today in historic St Albans in Hertfordshire, barely twenty minutes out of London but a world away. I mean, how could you resist this write-up in the ubiquitous London Walks brochure?
The most fascinating small city in England is just 20 minutes from London. St. Albans is England in miniature, an essence of England. Here you see it all—from the Legions of Julius Caesar to the dynasty of the Churchills. These streets are corridors in the vale of time. Here's the only Roman theatre in Britain; here's the oldest street market in this sceptered isle—it dates back to the Saxons; round this corner there's a 600-year-old Moot hall; round that one a clutch of mediaeval and Tudor coaching inns; hard by, a rare curfew clock tower; up these lanes a sprinkling of half-timbered Elizabethan houses; over there, streets and buildings that are essays in Georgian England; here, a Victorian prison. Let alone all sorts of hidden, curious places and things—and a skein of enthralling history. Not to put too fine a point on it, St. Albans is London's best-kept secret!
But the kicker was the note just below this:
Ding Dong Merrily on High! This Explorer Day is timed to coincide with St. Albans' Christmas street market—the oldest, longest, bestest traditional Christmas street market in England!
To coin a phrase: holy cow! Sign me up for that!

I hopped on the Underground this morning, heading towards the rendezvous point, and I had a very lovely moment of serendipitous synchronicity when, as the Circle Line train pulled into the Baker Street Underground Station, Gerry Rafferty's classic song "Baker Street" began playing, quite at random chance (well, sorta: it was on my playlist). That's the sort of moment that I take as a portentous sign of a wonderful day: as my "London Song of the Day" features hopefully show you, I place great importance and delight in my London musical soundtracks.

I met up with the rest of my group at West Hampstead Tube Station (on the Jubilee Line), including two very friendly and pleasant people I got to talking with on the train out to St Albans, Chinese-Australian Vivian and Australian Peter. It was quite fun chatting with them (they did not at all seem surprised to see a little stuffed bull on the trip) and we swapped tales of travel and our lives back home. I let them know a lot about New York City and they told me all about Australia. Now I want to go to Sydney on my next vacation!

HilaryOur guide for the day was the cheery and knowledgeable Hillary, her professional tour guide blue-badge proudly displayed, and she guided us into the town with periodic pauses to tell the history and evolution of the town. As I'd never even heard of St Albans before it was all fascinating new info to me, including the fact that St Albans was once the number three Roman city in Britain (known then as Verulamium). I'm a big fan of all things historically Roman, especially the Lindsey Davis mysteries featuring Marcus Didius Falco, the Asterix comics, and of course all those gladiator movies, so this was a great delight to me. The town looked incredibly sleepy, however, as we wandered in from the station. Where was everyone? Had we stumbled upon a deserted ghost town? Where oh where were the denizens of St Albans?

St Albans street marketEvery man jack of 'em was at the St Albans' market, of course! It stretched on for street after street after street—crafts and food and gifts and books and toys and drinks and clothing and jewelry and more of everything else every step you took! Holy (again) cow! I'm not certain if it's the biggest street market I've ever seen, but it certainly was one of the longest. Everyone was out Christmas and holiday shopping, and our group slid our way through the crowds. Hilary warned us "Don't start shopping now!...we'll never find you again!" (She did tell us there would be plenty of time to shop at our leisure after the afternoon portion of the tour.) Reluctantly I tore myself away from a booth featuring some football club scarves (including the team I back, Chelsea...Blues forever!) and trotted along to follow the rest of the tour.

We broke for lunch and I wandered off with Vivian and Peter for a hot meal in a busy and bustling town centre pub: it felt great to get out of the cold, off my hooves and shovel some savory bangers and mash into my hungry stomach. I don't eat or like peas at home, but there's something about having them in a big bowl with sausages, mashed potatoes and gravy that make them perfectly palatable to me, and I cleaned my plate of everything, including little round green vegetables, and washed it all down with a pint of bitter. We had a grand time talking about ourselves and each other, and suitably rested and fortified, the tour group reassembled and Hilary led us ever-onwards.

St Albans streetSt Albans is crowned by a cathedral on a hill, which made it beginning in medieval days a leading destination for pilgrims and because of its proximity to London, a major stop-over location for travelers of all kinds, both religious and secular, heading in both directions. (Even today it's mostly a commuter town; mainly populated by people who work in London and commute in on rail. Oh, so it's the Croton of Hertfordshire, then!) It was for many centuries the first overnight coach stop to and from London, which explains why in those days, Hilary explained, seventy-two coaches a day passed through St Albans! All those coaches need lots of coaching inns, and she guided us down a picturesque and gently sloping road leading in/out of town and pointed out all the sites of many, many inns: they're evident by their arched entrances leading to the back or inside lots. (Now serving as garage access for everyone's Austin Minis.) Many of those inns are still extant today as pubs; I counted more pubs in a quarter mile than most everyplace else in the British Isles I've been to (Well, except for some sections of Dublin).

Asterix: RomansWe come to the bottom of the sloping hill and make a gentle curve back towards town to discover a tiny stream that was once a river so large Roman ships came up it from the Thames. I look over the bridge and find it hard to believe; it's barely the size of Mud Creek way back in Clay, New York. Either there's been some serious setback to the size of the river or these were mighty tiny Romans, perhaps along the size of Asterix. These Romans are not only crazy, they're absolutely microscopic! Hilary assures me the river was much, much wider and deeper in those days, and walks us all down to the reason it's so much smaller now: a peaceful long artificial lake built by the unemployed marchers from Jarrow to London protesting the loss of their jobs in the North, but who stayed behind to create the lake on their way to London—sort of a British version of a WPA project. That's why there's still so many families in St Albans who can trace their heritage to a Geordie North: they are from the Jarrow men who stayed behind because they were offered work, and never left St Albans.

Hillary points over the lake to the last remnants of the Roman wall that surrounded the vast settlement of Verulamium (it was the largest and most important Roman city that wasn't a military garrison). She shows us a map of how vast and expansive the Roman city was, but only a small portion of wall remains. Peter and I wonder "where did all the Roman stones from the rest of the wall go?" We hypothesize that they were carted off by the villagers after the fall of the Roman Empire and that many a house was built from Roman brick. As usual, my guesses about history are spot-dead-wrong, and it turns out the use of the brick was less personal and more spiritual.

St Albans CathedralWe hike back up the gently sloping hill and St Albans cathedral comes into view, a compact but grand sprawling medieval cathedral (with some curious but not-offensive Victorian additions designed by the man who engineered the Big Ben Bells, Hilary tells us), and the sight of the brick cathedral tower instantly turns a little lightbulb on over my head. "That solves the Mystery of the Missing Roman Brick!" I declare to Peter, and sure enough, Hilary confirms that's what happened to the Roman city and wall: St Albans is built on poor rock for mining or construction, so the building of the cathedral used the extra material at hand, carted up the hill with wheelbarrows, wagons, and no doubt a good amount of ironic contemplation that materials used by pagan Romans was to now be used to build a cathedral to the Christian God.

Before we enter the Cathedral, Hillary tells us the history of St. Alban, the first Christian martyr of Britain. Alban sacrificed his freedom to help a Christian priest hide from the Romans, and converted to Christianity while speaking to the Christian priest (now that's a persuasive preacher!) The priest escaped but Alban was captured by the Romans and sentenced to execution. Legend has the first executioner assigned to chop off his holy head refused and was executed himself immediately after, thus becoming the second British Christian martyr. Funny things, British Christian martyrs, just like London buses: you wait for centuries for one, and two come along right after the other.

The second executioner was so aghast with his own deed at chopping off the head of this immensely revered man that (and again Hillary pointed out she's recounting legend, only possibly maybe history) his eyes immediately and violently popped out of his head into his hands. Whoo-wee! I might have paid more attention in Catholic school if this had been the kind of story they taught us. The best-seller in the Cathedral gift shop, especially among touring schoolchildren, is a postcard reproducing the gory event, right down to the eye-popping action. (And people say saints are boring!)

The Martyrdom of St. Alban

St. Albans Street MarketIt was getting on to near-dusk by the time the tour ended, so I said my goodbyes and made my way back into town to check out some shops and the market, which was winding down but still as busy as before. I was only able to see a fraction of it before my hooves got so weary I had to hop on a bus back to the train station to return to London, but I was utterly impressed by not only the high Christmas spirits of everyone but the range and variety of gifts, food, clothing, jewelry and crafts at the market. You see a street fair in Manhattan and it's the same as every other street fair: the funnel cakes and the guy selling the big plastic bags full of tube socks. I didn't see a single tube sock, but I saw lots of cool stuff, and even though I didn't buy anything, looking was as fun as buying.

So, I spent twelve pounds for the tour itself, three pounds sixty for the railway ticket, eight quid for lunch, and 30 p for a postcard: a little under fifty bucks for a grand day out: several hours of informed and educational touring, a wonderful introduction to a historically significant town I never knew existed, a hearty and filling lunch with two new friends, a knowledge and awareness of British, Roman, and Christian history, and a postcard of a guy with his eyes popping out: priceless.

So yes, I say it again: these walking tours are a bit of all right, whether you do a short two-hour London walking tour or a more ambitious Explorer Day. I highly recommend 'em and give them the full Bully seal of approval: two hooves up and a bold, green-fonted "fun"!


Anonymous said...

You've made my holiday merrier with your wonderful London blog. You're one heckuva writer and I feel as if I'm there with you, enjoying the endless fascinations of "the best city in the world". Thanks for the great memories of London Walks. If you haven't done it yet, I recommend the Dickens Pub Walk, which gets you into a really interesting part of the city that's hard to find otherwise.

P.S. Is XTC's "Towers of London" on your playlist? It's my all-time favorite London song.

David Norman said...

Your post comes very close to convincing me that St Albans is fun - having been on a school trip there as a child, I don't think anyone will change my mind – so consider that high praise indeed. The London Walks are great - I did the Jack The Ripper walk and it was fascinating stuff.

Btw, I think you mean West Hampstead station on the Jubilee Line, not West Hampshire.

Also, for most pubs per square mile, I am reliably informed that Chester is number one ... (I can't verify that, but my friend was very insistent).

Bully said...

Thanks, David! Espeially for the correction on West Hampstead--such an Underground enthusiast as me should be ashamed to have made a mistake! I'm correcting it in my main post but I'll leave this here to let you get the credit!

(And I'm marking down Chester as a "must visit" on my next trip...)