St Albans is a city that I’ve longed to visit for many a year.
I’d heard many a fine tale about the ancient city of Verulamium (the Roman city was actually at the bottom of the hill atop which the modern city of St Albans stands), including its unique architecture, intricate infrastructure (cute cobbled streets) and community buzz.
So when VIP and I happened to be in the vicinity of St Albans, it was almost as if fate had decided on our visit. We had arrived from a stay at the wonderful Flitwick Manor near Woburn in Bedfordshire and wanted our trip to have more purpose than just an overnight stay, as nice as it was. So, looking at the map – and having both discovered that neither of us had been to St Albans (in Hertfordshire) before – that’s where we headed.
I knew that an old acquaintance of mine lived in St Albans – and no one knows their city more than the locals – so I tapped into her wealth of knowledge (thanks Angie) and arrived at Sopwell Street at 10am armed with a plethora of information.
And so, having experienced the delights of the city, here are 6 must-dos when visiting St Albans.
1. Marvel at St Albans Cathedral
After grabbing a quick pick-me-up takeaway in the form of some caffeine from Hatch (a coffee shop with a following unlike any I have encountered before), we headed down George Street to St Albans Cathedral. A model of the magnificent building sits outside, putting its scale into perspective.
The Cathedral, which dates back to the 11th century, is free to enter and has recently unveiled a new £7m welcome centre. The gift shop/visitor centre of St Albans Cathedral is also well worth a visit. A frieze makes its way around the entrance to the cathedral itself detailing both the history of the current city and the place of worship itself. St Alban, for whom the city is named, is Britain’s first martyr and is supposed to have been beheaded after having protected a Christian priest, Amphibalus, who was being persecuted by the Romans.
A place of worship has stood, roughly speaking, on the site ever since St Albans third century martyrdom, with the current building only receiving cathedral status in the 19th century. Lots of looking up (you can’t help it) ensued, with one kindly lady explaining to us the potted history of the city itself while we snooped. After more exploring we found ourselves in an area clearly designated for inspiring younger visitors. A matter of seconds later I had donned a Roman soldier’s helmet and a shield – me and dressing up? I couldn’t resist!
2. Enjoy a spot of retail therapy
St Albans is bursting with choices when it comes to shopping. I loved that most of the shops, certainly in George Street, were independents. There is plenty to explore and be warned – you might have to loosen the purse strings a little as there’ll be plenty to tempt.
My first stop was a wonderful shop called Cositas. A step up into the shop revealed an eclectic Aladdin’s Cave of objets d’arts and I was soon in my element. Even VIP seemed to be interested in some framed representations of a St Albans-based pub crawl. I wasn’t sure where to look and finally settled on a set of novelty coat hooks made to look like men climbing up a wall – perfect for the summer house I thought.
Next stop was a charity shop with a difference; the Mary Poppins channeling Raindrops on Roses. I enjoyed a long browse inside and got chatting with a couple of the volunteers and learned that all profits go to battling cancer. Some 20 minutes later, I was making my way to the till armed with plenty of goodies including a Sam Wilson fabric storage basket, Caroline Gardner makeup purse, Plum & Ashby Wild Fig & Saffron hand cream and a hexagon trinket which I’ve used as door handle decoration.
Right across the street from Raindrops on Roses is a lovely independent shop called Chloe James. Deceiving in size at first, the shop is actually spread across three levels, each with something unique to offer. I spotted plenty of things I wanted to buy, but by this time, I let my head rule for once and kept the purse shut. ‘Next time’ I vowed to myself. Inside was a mix of jewellery, gifts, homeware and clothes. And if it’s clothes you’re seeking – these are one-of-a kind.
3. Have lunch at the oldest pub in England!
St Albans is home to Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, reputedly the oldest pub in England, with a rich storied history AND most definitely one that serves some fine gastronomic delights.
We managed to bag a seat next to the roaring fire – and honestly, I could have stayed all day. It was warm, cosy and just what the doctor ordered. VIP and I had worked up an appetite and we were looking forward to devouring some decent food.
The menu was simple but gave a variety of options to cater for all tastes, including vegetarian, and I loved the laid back vibe and how traditional yet quaint the pub was in terms of its décor.
What I also loved were the little nods towards humour on the menu – and also that they didn’t take themselves too seriously. For a pub to be named winners of ‘Best Pub’ in 2016, 2017 and 2018 of The Albans Food & Drink Festival, they had license to be a bit snooty, but not a whiff to be smelt.
On to the food and VIP opted for the shin of beef with mash potato – one of the specials of the day, along with a pint of Black Listed, brewed by the pub themselves! I chose the fresh cod and hand-cut chips, which was served in batter and made with local ale, complete with salad and homemade tartar sauce. Mine was delicious but there was simply too much and I didn’t manage to finish it, while VIP managed to almost inhale his, claiming that it was “bloody delicious”. And for VIP to offer praise on that level, I knew it was a cut above the rest. I suppose the only thing I was a bit gutted about was being too stuffed to eat dessert, which (for me at least) is the best part of a meal. Still, that’s good enough reason for a return visit and I always love a great reason for coming back to a place I really appreciated.
4. Take in the scenery of Verulamium Park
Leaving Ye Olde Fighting Cocks feeling suitably sated, now was a good time to take in the wonderful sights of Verulamium Park. For one, it’s located right next to the pub and secondly, if you’re looking to feel a teeny bit virtuous after stuffing your cake hole, then there’s nothing better than a nice stroll around the park.
Set over 100 acres of parkland – and noted for its wildlife and heritage – the park was once the site of the third largest city in Roman Britain, Verulamium. In the park you’ll come across evidence of the city including sections of the Roman city wall and even a well preserved mosaic from what was once a large town house. It’s worth a visit alone for the history.
5. Enjoy the bustle of the market
St Albans’ street market, which runs the length of St Peter's Street, is open for business twice a week – on Saturday and Wednesday, and offers everything and anything from cheese and handmade jewellery to vegan delights and food from around the world.
It’s also the largest market in the south east of England – and didn’t I know it. VIP and I didn’t manage to make it to the end of the market. For one, I got distracted by a fudge stall and found myself chatting with the owner. He was curious about me taking pictures on my phone of the fudge and when I told him it was ‘for the gram’, he knew exactly what I meant; and so ensued a conversation about social media. Secondly, we had walked for quite a while by this point and, not being in the peak of fitness at the moment, we decided to stroll halfway down, turn round and return.
Interestingly, the market is well documented as far back as the 9th century, but you won’t find any medieval food here – it’s all cheese, worldwide delights and a stall or two offering fudge. Thanks to the fudge stall, I left a pound or two lighter – and I’m not referring to my weight.
6. Treat yourself to a coffee (and cake) at St Albans Museum & Gallery
I’m super pleased that Angie suggested a visit to the coffee shop at St Albans Museum and Gallery. You see, the coffee shop is actually the old courtroom – and like Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, it was somewhere that I could have whiled away a few hours – and enjoyed not having to clock watch.
Sipping a latte and enjoying a carrot cake (I had to get my desserts in!), I found myself speculating about the seats that visitors chose to sit in the old courtroom. At the judge’s bench sat a young guy – he couldn’t have been more than 25, typing away on his Macbook and every now and then looking around to see if anyone had clocked him. I’d clocked him because I wondered if he’d chosen that seat to look important or if he actually thought he was important.
Then you’d get the jurors – typically older people who’d met up with their friends for a cake and catch up. They didn’t seem interested in their surroundings so much – I expect they were there most weekends and were used to it. And then there were people like us – seated at the same level as the judge’s bench, fancying ourselves as court officials if you like.
Every now and then you’d get a face pop up in the accused box – this is because the steps that led down from the box went directly into a maze of underground tunnels that led straight to the prison cells beneath. It was a fascinating set up and I think if I lived in St Albans the staff would quickly get to know me on a first name basis.
So there you have it – 6 must-dos in St Albans. There were of course plenty of other places to visit and explore, but that’s the beauty of spending a day in a city – there’s always a reason to return to explore in more depth.
Finally, just for a bit of fun – and to boost your grey matter, here are a few facts about St Albans that you might not have known…
- The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban sits on the site of the execution and burial of Alban, Britain's first Christian martyr and saint, and has been a site of worship and pilgrimage for more than 1,700 years.
- Ye Olde Fighting Cocks has made it into the Guinness book of records as the country's oldest pub.
- St Albans features the country's oldest public school (St Albans School), with its most famous pupil being Professor Stephen Hawking.
- It is home to the only working medieval clock tower in the country.
- The city has more pubs per square mile than any other town in the country. The HQ of CAMRA is based in the city.
- Legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick lived and worked in the area and produced The Shining in St Albans.
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