St Albans, May 2020
Good to see you all here at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks after I abandoned you at this same spot last week.
This place has a long history. It dates back to the 8th century, though this actual building only goes back as far as the 11th century. I won’t retell that long story now. Instead, we are going to follow in the steps of the monks and head to the Cathedral. But we are going overground, whereas the monks had a tunnel from the cellars here to the cathedral, allowing them free passage between beer and prayer when needs required it.
As always, we have a choice of routes. Going to the left of the pub takes us up a road, past the end of the Cathedral and into town, whereas going right walks us up through the grounds (past the ice cream van if the weather is good), through the graveyard and into town.
As your guide today, I’m choosing left. We’ll take a leisurely walk uphill with the Cathedral coming into close view on our right.
Ahead is the Great Gateway of the Monastery, and in these quiet times we can wander through (and take photos) without competing with traffic. On our left, and overhead, is St Albans School. This educational establishment has a long, long history. It was founded in 948 in the Abbey by Wulsin, and was the first school in the world to accept students not intending to join a religious order. In its early life it moved around town to a number of different locations, including the Abbey’s Lady Chapel, but has been here in and next to the gateway since 1871.
St Albans Abbey and gateway
Before passing through the gateway, though, we will take a quick detour to the Cathedral – this is the best end for good views. In fact, this is the end that appeared in season 2 of The Crown, on Netflix, masquerading as Westminster Abbey. This is this facade that enjoys illumination during special events.
Time permitting, and open doors once more allowed, the place is worth exploring inside. There are regular free tours or you can just wander as you wish. Friendly staff are always on hand to answer any questions you may have. They also run occasional tours of the tower – really worth doing if you can coincide your visit with that.
Now we’ll wander through the gateway and veer left on Romeland, taking a few minutes to enjoy the small triangular garden of rest in the middle of the road.
Then we turn right onto George Street, an old street with attractive 15th and 16th century architecture. This old street was a major route between London and the Midlands, and home to a host of coaching inns, many of which now house appealing eateries.
At the top of George Street, there’s another ancient building waiting for us. In fact, this is the only surviving medieval town belfry in England.
St Albans Clock Tower
It was built by the people of St Albans in 1405 as a symbol of their resistance against the power of the abbot of St Albans. The tower and its bells allowed the town to sound its own hours and, until 1863, the curfew. It was also used to ring out for the first Battle of St Albans during the Wars of the Roses in 1455.
It is thoroughly worth a climb up the 93 steps to enjoy the views over St Albans, and to see the clock mechanism. Entrance is only £2 and it is normally open on weekends at Bank Holidays.
Now we are pretty much in the centre of town, with its regular retail, banking, hotels, etc. And a few decent coffee shops, of course! My favourite is Nkora, with serves the most wonderful vegan carrot cake. I’m not vegan but it is simply delicious!! Sadly, it is takeaway only at the moment, but I recommend their iced latte. Also, during lockdown, they are selling some high quality essential food items – the fruit and veg from Covent Garden Market is excellent.
There is also a great market in town on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but operating in limited capacity at the moment, with just a few food stalls.
After grabbing our needed refreshment, we’ll wander back the way we came, cross the road and take an alley opposite the Clock Tower. This takes us back to the Cathedral and its beautiful grounds. There are plenty of benches around, or comfortable grass, where we can take a minute to enjoy our coffee. And be sure to enjoy the views of the Cathedral too.
Then it’s an easy walk back downhill to the old pub at which we started. And we’ll pass the ice cream van that I mentioned earlier.
Just be sure to turn and have a final look back up at the beautiful Cathedral.
Copyright Debbie Smyth, 18 May 2020
Posted as part of Monday Walks