For the first four days of my recent trip to England, I went to St Albans, a cathedral city 19 miles north of London, where the air is better but with London in easy reach. I stayed in an Air bnb, a small house built in the garden of a larger house but with its own patio and street entrance.
The garden wasn’t much of an asset in the biting chill but there were consolations in the form of a shower that worked (without the usual UK trade-off between heat and water pressure or switches to be turned on fifteen minutes in advance of a lukewarm trickle). There was also a fine expanse of work space and the hosts were friendly but kept their distance, just popping in once a day to restock the biscuits and make the bed. I could live with that intrusion.
There’s much to see in St Albans but I only managed a fraction as I had friends to meet and other activities in London and an old flat mate to visit in a care home in nearly Elstree.
So this time I didn’t revisit the wonderful Roman mosaic floor – huge and strangely abstract, without the usual gods and goddesses and sprinkling of beasts, mythological and real.
There’s also the cathedral and a lot of other Roman remains as the city was on Watling St, an important Roman road from the Channel through London and up to the north west.
It was then called Verulamium, the name’s origin uncertain but perhaps related to the nearby River Ver, which babbles happily on with its brythonic name, while the town became first Verulamacæstir under the Anglo-Saxons and eventually St Albans in Christian times.
St Albans was martyred close to the current site of the cathedral perhaps under the reign of Emperor Diocletian but maybe earlier, having given sustenance to a fleeing Christian priest. According to the British sixth-century writer Gildas, the first executioner couldn’t bring himself to slay this holy man. The second was more successful although his eyes then dropped out. This was in early Christian times when God was rather more robust and hands on but even so I am inclined to doubt this story.
I copied the appropriate pages of the local Pevsner and walked around the mediaeval quarter with its ensemble of fine buildings. The earliest is supposed to be from the 13th century. One street called French Row fascinated me. Was it a place where French speakers congregated? French was still widely spoken in England in Chaucer’s time (1362) though declining and spoken with a strange accent. There was an old pub in French Row, the Fleur-de-Lys, under which name it existed from the Middle Ages until 2007 when some market barbarian decided that the Snug would be a better name…..
One of the things I love about densely packed England is that there is such a wealth of associations and things to know. We travel far in search of the exotic but if you train your mind and eye to look beyond false familiarity, strangeness and difference are all around us.