Walk 158: St Albans City Walk

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 6.65 miles (10.7km)

Time to walk: 4 hours but we were exploring & had stops for refreshments & a look inside the Cathedral

Difficulty: Easy & all on hard surfaces, so ideal in all weathers

Parking: We parked at the railway station in Station Way, where we started this walk

Public toilets: The station at the beginning & end, & then cafes etc en route

Map of the route:

I’ve wanted to visit & walk around St Albans for some time & in July 2021 had the opportunity to do so. I wasn’t disappointed & it’s well worth an overnight stop as there’s so much to explore & there are some superb very old pubs & restaurants

St Albans lies roughly 20 miles north-west of central London & is easily accessible for a day out from Northampton. It takes its name from the first British saint, Alban, who we’ll look at in more detail when we visit the magnificent cathedral

There’s been a settlement here since the Iron Age, but the city is best known for its connection with the Romans.  Verulamium was the second largest town in Roman Britain after Londinium. It grew to a significant town, & as such received the attentions of Boudica of the Iceni in 61, when Verulamium was sacked & burnt on her orders

Today it has a small feel about it, but there’s a buzz & lots to see, so…

Let’s Walk!

1. As mentioned I parked in the multi storey car park in Station Way. Come out of the car park & walk up to the junction with Hatfield Road…

Turn left & cross the railway bridge. At the crossroads turn right into Lemsford Road…

3. Turn left into Avenue Road…

…& continue to the end & the junction with Stonecross. Turn left. Across the road’s the impressive, & modern Seventh Day Adventist Church

4. Bear left along St Peter’s Street…

…& take the small path up the slope into the churchyard of St Peter’s Church

5. Have a look over the wall to see the rather magnificent alms houses over St Peter’s Street. These are the Pemberton Almshouses built with money left by Roger Pemberton. The houses were completed in 1629 to house six poor widows who had fallen on hard times. Money was also given towards their clothing, stockings, shoes & linen as well as meat, bread, drink & firewood

The property was looked after by the Pemberton family charity looked for over 300 years & survived the threat of demolition, today being owned by the local council

If you look at the top of the gate you’ll see a spike, like an arrow. The local rumour is that Roger Pemberton left the money as penance for shooting a widow by accident!

6. St Peter’s Church is believed to have been founded in AD 948 by Abbot Ulsinus of St Albans, but there is some uncertainty. No trace of the original building exists

Due to a funeral it wasn’t possible to go inside the church. In the popular BBC soap opera EastEnders, Ricky & Bianca’s second wedding was filmed inside & outside the church

7. Continue past the war memorial…

…& at the roundabout head straight over…

8. We walked down the right side of the street as there was a very good market on

A Royal Charter for St Albans to hold a market was granted in 1553, but it’s believed one was held here as early as the 9th century. The current day market runs the length of St Peters Street and Market Place & includes an excellent “street food’ section

9. Ahead’s the Town Hall, also known as the Old Town Hall & The Courthouse…

Keep the Town Hall on your left & enter the wonderful Market Place

10. This is a lovely area & the smells of the Street Food were very inviting. On the left’s one of the city’s best known pubs, ‘The Boot’. Dating back to the 1500’s, the First Battle of St Albans, which was also the first of the War of the Roses took place right outside its front door

Opposite the pub’s another famous landmark, the Clock Tower. The Clock Tower was built between 1403 & 1412, & is believed to have been completed in 1405. It was built close to the site of the Eleanor cross, which of course we are very familiar with in Northamptonshire

It’s believed it was built as a protest against the power of St Albans Abbey. The belief is that the local merchants were in favour of the Tower being built, as it meant their hours would no longer be decided by those at the Abbey, who had a clock & peal of bells of their own

During the Napoleonic Wars the Clock Tower’s height was an advantage & the roof was used as a semaphore station. The shutter telegraph style semaphore was part of the 16 station London to Great Yarmouth line, along which a message could be sent within 5 minutes

11. At the road turn right & follow the path down Verulam Road…

Continue as the road bears left down the hill passing the very Italian looking Verulam House Nursing Home

Originally built as a coaching inn known as ‘The Verulam Arms’, which opened in 1826, at the same time as Verulam Road, which was then a new section of a super highway from London to the port of Holyhead

In 1849 the inn was sold & its associated stables were demolished & the former stable area provided land for the building of an adjacent Roman Catholic church which was completed in 1856 & donated  to the Church of England. This church was known as Christ Church &, although it has been converted to offices since the early 1970s, its Lombardic style tower can still be seen

The house then became a private residence & was occupied in the mid 19th century, before becoming the official residence of the Anglican Bishop of St Albans & becoming known as the Bishop’s Palace in 1908

Throughout the Second World War it was known as Diocesan House & became a maternity hospital & a facility for training pupil midwives

Since 1996 the House has been the site of the ‘Verulam House Nursing & Residential Home’. Religious services are still held in the old chapel

12. Look for the turning on the opposite side of the road (left) up Portland Street…

It’s a bit of a hill, but this is a really lovely, well-kept street. There were several people painting their doorsteps when we walked up it

If it’s open, The Portland Arms looks a very attractive proposition

13. At the junction, turn left along Mount Pleasant & follow it down & then up the other side…

Pass the Veralum Arms which has a large beer garden if the weather’s nice…

14. Turn right along Spicer Street, passing beautiful Ramshaws Almshouses

Obviously the house next door used to be a pub

It’s also memories of another fine ale that sadly no longer exists Benskins was brewed in Watford until 1972. The brand was revived during the early 1980s, but bore no resemblance to the original beer & ceased production in 2002. Interestingly the brand name is currently owned by Carlsberg

15. At the end of the road, directly ahead’s the Cathedral, but for now our route is right, down the hill into what’s another beautiful area…

This is Fishpool Street. Take your time wandering down here as some of the buildings date back to the 1500’s & it appears little has changed since then

We had a refreshment stop at the Lower Red Lion which, we were told, was three cottages combined together. They do food & accommodation too

16. The road bends right down the hill. A feature of the city is how high some of the pavements are & especially the drop off them

A comment was made that this could be a hazard after visiting some to the watering holes!

17. At the junction at the bottom of the hill, turn left over the bridge…

On the other side of the road’s Kingsbury Watermill, which is thought to date back to Elizabethan times. The brick facade was added during Georgian times, but since then the Mill has remained largely unchanged

The area you’re standing in belonged to St Albans Abbey at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries across the country. It was modernised in the 19th century, & is reported to have been fully functional up until the 1960s. The milling machinery was subsequently restored in 1972, including two pairs of millstones

18. The river you’re crossing is the ‘Ver’, a 17 mile chalk tributary of the River Colne. Standing on the bridge you can see the main use of the mill these days…a well-known Waffle restaurant

A family business since 1978, The Waffle House specialises in sweet & savoury Belgian waffles

19. Continue up the hill & round the bend to the right to the junction with the main road. Cross this carefully at the pelican crossing to arrive at…

There’s an entry fee to pay, but this is a unique site. The Roman theatre here is claimed to be the only example of its kind, being a theatre with a stage rather than an amphitheatre

The theatre was built in about 140AD. Urban life continued in Verulamium into the 5th century. However, by that time the theatre had fallen into disuse & was used as a rubbish dump in the 4th century. It was excavated in the 19th century, & again in the 1930s

20. Come back out of theatre & retrace your steps to the bend, turning right past the old museum building & the church

This is St Michael’s Church which dates back to the 10th & 11th centuries & much of the building was done from materials salvaged from Roman times 

21. Continue up past the church to arrive at the modern Veralumium Museum, which is full of Roman treasures & contains some magnificent mosaics

Walk through the car park, passing the small sensory garden & towards the tree & cafe…

22. This is the rather wonderful, large Veralumium Park which covers over 100 acres. Archaeological excavations were undertaken in the park during the 1930s during which the 1800-year-old hypocaust & its covering mosaic floor were discovered. The Hypocaust Mosaic is on view to the public & currently protected from the elements by a purpose-built building in the park

At the cafe turn left & walk down towards the water play area…

…past the end of the lake

23. Bear right around the edge of the lake & continue with it on your right, & the River Ver on your left – this is lovely walking

There’s plenty of well-placed benches to spend a few reflective moments as well

24. At the end of the lake turn left to exit the park…

…& walk up the steep Abbey Mill Lane

25. At the top of the hill’s the magnificent Abbey Gateway, which was built in 1365 & is the last remaining building (except for the Abbey itself) of the Benedictine Monastery

It was besieged during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when the rebels attacked & most of the monks fled, apart from Thomas de la Mare who negotiated until Richard III regained control. The gateway was also a prison used to house the rebels

Since 1871 it has been a part of St Albans School, which is one of the oldest in the country. Past students include Professor Stephen Hawking & Pope Adam IV

It also housed the third printing press in England, from 1479

26. Just before the Abbey Gate, turn right into the Cathedral grounds…

The Cathedral is free to enter & a word of warning…be prepared to be awed & you could easily spend a couple of hours exploring this vast place. Once you think you’ve seen it all, it just goes on & on. Indeed it has the longest nave of any cathedral in the country!

27. Let’s go in & explore

Often referred to as “The Abbey’, a church is some format has stood on this site since 400AD. Much of what you see before you today dates back to Norman times…

If you walk across to the left wall, there’s a superb tapestry showing you the timeline of the Cathedral

28. Don’t forget to keep looking up as there are some stunning stain-glass windows & the light really plays on them

At the end of this first section is the Wallingford Screen, the original of which was built in 1484 by William Wallingford, the 47th Abbott of St Albans Abbey, at a cost of £733. It was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries. Lord Aldenham paid for the screen’s restoration in the 19th century

29. Move further through the cathedral to arrive at the shrine of St Alban

Alban lived in Verulamium, some time during the 3rd or 4th centuries, at a time Christians began to suffer “cruel persecution”

The legend proceeds with Alban meeting a Christian priest (known as Amphibalus) fleeing from “persecutors,” & sheltering him in his house for a number of days. Alban was so impressed with the priest’s faith & piety that he soon converted to Christianity. Eventually Roman soldiers came to seize the priest, but Alban put on his cloak & presented himself to the soldiers in place of his guest. Alban was brought before a judge & was sentenced to beheading

As he was led to execution, he came to a fast flowing river, commonly believed to be the River Ver, crossed it & went about 500 paces to a gently sloping hill overlooking a beautiful plain. When he reached the summit he began to thirst & prayed that God would give him drink, whereupon water sprang up at his feet. It was at this place that his head was struck off. Immediately after one of the executioners delivered the fatal stroke, his eyes fell out & dropped to the ground alongside Alban’s head. Later versions of the tale say that Alban’s head rolled downhill & that a well gushed up where it stopped

St Albans Cathedral stands near the supposed site of Alban’s martyrdom

The tomb of St Amphibalus is also in the cathedral

30. Come out of the cathedral through the gift shop & turn left, past the tree & along the cobbles

On reaching Holywell Hill turn right

31. Continue down the hill passing the wonderful building on the left…

Turn left into Sopwell Lane…

32. This is another picturesque area of the city & there’s more very old pubs including The Goat

There has been an inn on the site since 1587. It’s also renowned for its ghosts! Back in 1756 the inn could host as many as seventy horses at once

33. At the end bear left into Old London Road, passing another beautiful establishment, the Hare & Hounds, a 16th century former coaching inn

At the roundabout carry on straight ahead up the hill, again being careful of the big drops off the pavements

34. Take the left turn into Alma Cut…

At the top cross over the junction up Alma Road

35. Walk up Alma Road to the crossroads . Ahead’s The Trinity United Reform Church

At the traffic lights turn right & continue along crossing the railway bridge…

…& then turning left into Station Way to arrive back at the station & the car park where we parked

So that’s my look at this lovely city. It’s definitely worth an overnight stop to do more exploring as there’s lots to see & do. A fab place so…

Go Walk!