Monday, 8 June 2009

Roman in the gloaming

Back before we left Australia for the United Kingdom we were given a copy of ‘The Rough Guide to Britain’ (thanks Mike and Rachel). This was one of a number of books that we consulted about the County in which we were going to be living, Hertfordshire, all of which shared a common feature. What they held in common was that none of them mentioned Hertfordshire at all. With all of the history available in England it seemed that none of it, or at least none of any significance, had taken place anywhere near where we were going to be living. As those of you who have been receiving our emails or reading our blog would already know, this turned out to be far from the truth. Hertfordshire is full of interesting places and sights, as well as being very close to London, and we have enjoyed our time here immensely.

Some of you may not have heard that our time at the school is coming to an end, as we have been informed that our contracts will not be renewed due to lack of money. One of the consequences of this is that Wayne has been spending lots of time searching for a new job. Another is that Brock and Quinn will be heading back to Australia in a few days time for a couple of months, once Brock has finished his exams. Because of this we have tried to see as much of the local area as possible in the last few weeks so that the boys have a chance to experience it.

This weekend proved to be a little harder to travel because Quinn has been quite unwell, so Saturday meant a day at home. On Sunday, provided the weather was ok (it had also rained on and off for most of Saturday), we wanted to go somewhere close by. St Albans is a city (it has a cathedral) that lies almost 18 miles away from home and has played a significant role in the history of the country. In particular, it has some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the U.K. and although we have driven around it on many, many occasions, we had not yet stopped to have a look around. When the weather cleared at midday we bundled the boys into the car and headed west, into the heart of Hertfordshire.

Although the city is today called St. Albans, back in Roman times it was known as Verulamium, and that is what signs directing us there were calling it. Arriving in the car park we were pleased at the prospect of only having to pay £0.80 to park for the whole day but bemused to walk to the door of the museum and find that it would not open until 2pm. In order to kill some time we decided to have a bit of a stroll around the parklands which lay around the museum. This gave us all a bit of a chance to get out in the sun and, as we discovered, to see enormous amounts of wildlife as well as other interesting sights.

In 1929 the land that is known as Verulamium Park was purchased by the City Corporation of St Albans from the Earl of Verulam. All up there are over 100 acres of beautiful parkland, parts of which are marked out as football pitches, crickets pitches and tennis courts, but much of it is expansive lawns lined with trees and walking paths. From the air when it is dry, apparently, it is possible to make out the outline of the city walls, the main London Gate, and large numbers of the buildings which used to be part of Verulamium when it was a Roman City. Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa led archaeological excavations on the site during the 1930’s and much of what was uncovered is available to see, either out where it was found, or in the museum.

On this day there were lots and lots of people out walking their dogs, playing with their children, riding their bikes, or just taking the opportunity for a stroll. Given that the car park wasn’t full it seemed that the locals residents make good use of the parkland whenever the opportunity allows. Just as we had noted in London the previous weekend, where Hyde Park had been so full that it was difficult to see somewhere available to sit down, it was clear that the British really do make good use of their parklands. A number of animals took the opportunity to meet and greet us as we walked up to one of the features, the Roman Mosaic.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that the mosaic also wasn’t open until 2pm, but the walk up the slight hill gave us a better view over the parkland and up the next hill to St Albans Cathedral. The mosaic was one of the discoveries made by the Wheeler’s. Part of its impressiveness is the fact that is in such remarkably good condition, despite being nearly 2000 years old. Also amazing is that it is a hypocaust. The floor of the room which contained the mosaic was raised up on brick pillars to allow hot air from a fire to circulate underneath it. Essentially it is one of the earliest known forms of central heating (other than having a fire or fireplace obviously). Part of the mosaic floor has been lifted to show the pipes feeding in under the floor. The furnace area is also visible within the building that now protects the mosaic from the weather and lot of information is displayed on the walls surrounding it.

While we were waiting for the various buildings to open, we decided to take a walk down to the ornamental lake, which is a feature of the parklands. This is fed by the river Ver, which runs alongside it and which gave its name to the city. Even before the Romans there was a town on this spot called Verlamion, which meant ‘settlement above the marsh’. It was the capital of the Catuvellauni tribe, founded by their leader Tasciovanus and one of the first places in Britain recorded by name. Today it is simply a beautiful place to take a walk and numerous families were taking advantage of this. Around the lake were various spots to buy food including, we discovered, food for the birds and for your dog. We took the opportunity to pick up some bird food, which we were later able to put to good use.

By this time we found ourselves in the south eastern corner of the park which had signposts pointing up to St Albans Cathedral, so we decided to wander up the hill and take a look. Initially the road led past a pub called ‘Ye Olde Fighting Cocks’. Back in 1400 this was a Pigeon House for the abbey that King Offa of Mercia had built in 793 which lay further up the hill. It was severely damaged by the flood of 1599 and had to be rebuilt, which it was, as a public house. By the 17th and 18th Centuries it had become the local centre for cock fighting (hence the modern name) but this activity was banned in 1849 when the pub was renamed The Fisherman. It is reputed to be the oldest pub in Britain and was certainly being enjoyed by a goodly number of men, women and children on this beautiful day.

Although much of the property going up Abbey Mill Lane was originally part of the abbey much of it is in other hands now, however it is still magnificently looked after. Opposite the Cathedral itself is the (very posh looking) St Albans School, part of which is the old Gatehouse for the Abbey. This was erected in the 1360’s and besieged in 1381 by the insurgents in the Peasants Revolt. Among other things which contribute to its renown is the presence of the third printing press in Britain, which was housed here in 1479. After the dissolution of the monasteries, under Henry VIII, it became the local prison and held that role until 1869. Since 1871 it has been part of the school.

St Albans Cathedral is a magnificent building (although still not a patch on the Duomo in Milan) and it has the longest nave of any in Britain. It is named for Saint Alban, who was a pagan living in the Roman city of Verulamium in around 250, before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. At the time local Christians were being persecuted by the Romans and Alban provided shelter to their priest, Saint Amphibalus, in his home and was converted to Christianity by him. When the soldiers came to Alban's house, Alban exchanged cloaks with the priest and let himself be arrested. Alban was taken before the magistrate, where he proclaimed his new Christian faith and was condemned for it. Apparently, he was beheaded on the spot where the cathedral named for him now stands. The site is on a steep hill, and legend has it that his head rolled down the hill after being cut off, and that a well sprang up at the point where it stopped.

Early British writers mention a shrine or a church here from as early as 300 and Bishop Germanus of Auxerre visited the site in 429 in order to collect some earth to take back with him as a holy relic. After Offa built the original abbey it was sacked by the Danes in 890 and there wasn’t much work until 1005, when Abbot Ealdred (a Saxon) was licensed to plunder the ruins of Verulamium for building materials. However, it was Paul of Caen (the first Norman abbot) who really began the building of the Church that stands as the cathedral today. Much of the current layout and proportions date from his arrival in 1077. Work on the Cathedral has, it seems, been going on since that time, with various disputes, storms, earthquakes, subsidence and other issues seeing the building change both inside and out. It is fascinating inside, however, to see evidence of the different building ages in bricks, decorations and rooms of very different substance.

After the dissolution St Albans was a parish church (no doubt one of the more splendid in the country) initially part of the Diocese of Lincoln, then later of the Diocese of Rochester. However, in 1877 the Diocese of St Albans was created which oversees about 300 churches across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. Since that time it has seen its share of famous visitors; the Queen opened the new chapter house in 1982, while Diana, Princess of Wales, unveiled the beautiful rose window in 1987. Some of the clergy of the Cathedral have also achieved fame (or notoriety) with Robert Runcie having been bishop of St Albans from 1970 till 1980 before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury (and his grave is in the graveyard), the current dean is Jeffrey John, who some of our readers might recall made many headlines during 2003.

We have been inside a number of cathedrals, but there were lots of interesting things inside St Albans that we had not seen before. It was clear that at some stage the walls had been richly decorated because there were remnants of bits of artwork and tapestries. The ceilings also were richly painted with regular patterned decorations. On one wall was placed an old mural of the execution of St Alban that had been painted onto what looked like floorboards. In another corner was an ancient poor box, one of the possible origins of the term Boxing Day when the box was opened and the proceeds distributed. While we had seen numerous tombs with brass covers we hadn’t yet come across a vault which you can descend into. One of the people buried there was Robert Breakspear, who had been a monk at St Albans, and was also the father of Nicolas Breakspear, the first English Pope.

Crowds of visitors began flocking into the cathedral as we were leaving because there was to be an organ recital. to celebrate the reopening of the organ after almost 3 years of restoration work. At this point we wandered back down the hill to complete our circumambulation of the lake. This gave us an opportunity to use our bird food because, among the many nests of birds with chicks there were some lovely fluffy Canadian Geese chicks (with their parents) who came right up to us. We were able to feed them from our hands; first Wayne, then Quinn, and even Brock gave it a go. Even when a goose missed the food and tried to take off a finger it was nice that their beaks were not really hard enough to cause any damage.

We headed back to the museum and went in to learn more about Roman life in Britain. The museum is set up to try and recreate what Verulamium itself might have been based on the results of the excavations in the area. There are hordes of artifacts, good use of multimedia presentations, and attempts to recreate the lifestyle as well as the lives of the people who had been here 2000 years ago. To their credit, the museum gave good explanations of how some of their reconstructions had been created. There were opportunities for children to dress up, and worksheets for them to fill out finding out specific information as if it was a treasure hunt. Perhaps the most impressive part was some other mosaics where parts of the original had been merged with a recreation of the remainder of it. Unfortunately, we were all quite tired and possibly a bit spoiled by some of the other places we had seen so we didn’t spend as much time as we might have.

One other part of Verulamium, the ampitheatre, is on a separate piece of land which is private property. It is still open to the public but a bit of a distance away from the rest. Even though there is very little chance that we will be returning we decided not to push our time. It was amazing to think that we had been living this close to such an amazing place for 18 months without really knowing anything about it. It is no wonder that so many English people have said to us that we have probably seen more of the country than they have.

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