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It was one of those rare days that we "happened upon" St Albans and it's Cathedral. Having half a day to kill whilst the car was being serviced in Chiswick, West London, although our loan car, being electrically assisted, was, for now at least, exempt from the Central London Congestion Charge, we made the positive decision to leave "The Smoke" and search out somewhere a touch less claustrophobic.
THE ROMAN "CITY" OF ST ALBANS
Around twenty miles to the north of London is the delightful old town of St Albans, many years ago I had enjoyed a day out here, Mrs R in her seven years in England had never had the pleasure - but was not, for whatever reason over-excited at the prospect! Asking me 'what was there to see', my first and only real answer was the Cathedral. However, having had a very early start that morning, my thoughts, at that moment in time, were more concentrated on finding somewhere for an early lunch!
Any of you who know St Albans will quite justifiably say that the above paragraph sells this fascinating town very short indeed. St Albans, or as the Romans knew it - Verulamium - was in Roman times the third largest and most important city in England. There are many important historical sites in and around the town today, none, sadly, very relevant to this review.
Appetite satisfied, on this increasingly grey and windy February afternoon, we made our way, on foot, through the centre of town to the Cathedral Precinct. It was so long ago when I last came here that I recognised almost nothing of it - one side of the Cathedral grounds seemed to have been lined with modern buildings that had not previously been there. Walking around to the main entrance in the West Front, I realised that when last I visited the Cathedral I had approached from the West, rather than as today, walking around the building on the north side.
WHO WAS Mr ALBAN?
Yes there was a Mr Alban! He was an early Christian; put to death in around 250 AD by the Roman's who at the time did not believe in one God, rather a large number of Pagan Gods. Being executed for his faith and buried on the hillside where St Alban's Cathedral now stands, Alban has his place in history as the first English Christian martyr.
Alban, a prominent Pagan citizen in Verulamium, had been converted to Christianity by a priest, who he had concealed in his house and finally aided in escaping the city disguised as Alban himself. For this, the Roman magistrate sentenced Alban, who refused to forsake Christianity, to death.
Seventy-five years after his death, with the Roman Empire on the wane, Christianity was officially recognised, by which time his burial place had become a site of pilgrimage. Miracles were said to happen here and by the eighth century a monastic church had been founded on the site in order to house the shrine of Alban.
In 793, under Benedictine rule, the Saxon King Offa successfully petitioned the Pope in Rome in order that Alban be canonised. Thus the settlement that was now established around the monastery became known as St Albans.
Both the abbey and houses of the townspeople are likely to have been entirely wooden constructions; there was no local building stone available to quarry in the vicinity.
The Roman city of Verulamium was located in the valley below the church and by the year 800 had been long abandoned. The abbots brought up the hill many tonnes of the very hard Roman bricks from the ruined city with the intention of building a church worthy of St Albans stature.
Before any brick construction had started on the site, the Normans had invaded, and in order to stamp their authority and superiority on the Saxon abbots they planned and started to erect, in 1077, a large Norman church. The design was that of the first Norman abbot, Paul of Caen, the builder his master mason Robert.
St Alban was very well known in France, many churches there had already been dedicated to him. With this being the site of his martyrdom, Paul of Caen had the full backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, using a largely Saxon workforce, he built his abbey church - at the time of its dedication in 1115 it was, unsurprisingly, the largest church in England.
A CATHEDRAL OF UNUSUAL PROPORTIONS
My wife was staggered by the sheer length of the exterior of St Albans Cathedral - indeed, it does have rather out of proportion dimensions. By far from the tallest of such buildings, the massive square, but squat, tower only seems to accentuate the extreme length of this extraordinary building.
Whereas many subsequent church builders have put great store in the height of their building or spire, in Norman times, partly one suspects due to the technicalities of "building tall", great store and prestige was associated with the length of the central nave.
UNUSUAL BUILDING MATERIALS TOO
Robert (please don't call him Bob!), the builder had the large stockpile of re-cycled Roman bricks to work with. Red in colour and irregular in shape, more like tiles than bricks (you can see some exposed outside the building on the North Transept), they were extremely hard. This was somewhat of a double-edged sword. On the one hand this may well be the reason that the church still stands today - showing remarkably few signs of erosion compared with many later churches and cathedrals, but on the other hand, the brick was so hard that carving it was impossible.
Both designer and builder wanted to create the illusion inside of this being much lighter, more elegant, stonework than heavy red terracotta. This was achieved using a plaster wash, bonded to the bricks with, of all things, horse hair. Once set, the plaster was painted to resemble stone blocks and the arches decorated, tricking the eye into thinking that a master stone mason had been at work here. Apparently, this interior remains unique in this country and bearing in mind its origins in the early twelfth century, remains remarkably well preserved today.
THANKS FOR THAT JOHN; YOU REALLY ARE A MINE OF INFORMATION!
We entered The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban (to give it its full title) at about 2.20pm to see a large notice saying that a guided tour was to take place at 2.30. Indeed, John, the guide approached and enquired if we would be interested in taking his tour. Normally we prefer to explore such places on our own, however, only us and another and another couple were here - it seemed rude to shun his offer!
We were so pleased that we did take the guided tour! John was a young retired gentleman, who not only possessed a great sense of humour, but was also a fountain of knowledge about the cathedral, its architecture, building, history and its workings as a place of worship today. Maybe not entirely relevant, but we were particularly impressed when he actually mentioned that he and his wife worshipped here "most" Sundays.
Much of the information contained in this review - at least as much as I could retain in my own memory - I have to thank John for. Without his fascinating tour many of the details would have been missed, especially with regards to the construction. We would, for instance, have walked right past the exposed horse hair on the edge of a couple of the pillars having no idea what it was! Indeed, we would have been convinced that the interior of this church was stone - which it is not.
Whilst the tour was scheduled to take about an hour, due to there only being four of us, and many questions arising as we went around the Cathedral, our tour actually lasted closer to two hours - time which passed amazingly quickly.
THE LONGEST NAVE IN ENGLAND
From the west end of the Cathedral where you enter, you are standing in the main body of the church, with the nave stretching 85 metres (275ft) into the distance before you. Thanks mostly to the windows running the full length of the nave, this is a light and airy space. The far west end of the church is actually a thirteenth century extension, both outside and in, the "join" can be clearly seen.
Inside, to your left (north) are the rounded Norman arches and pillars, the westward ones being of the early English period, easily identifiable by their dog tooth carving. One does not need to be terribly observant to realise that the pillars north and south here do not match! The simple reason for this being that, during an evening service, in 1323, two of the south side pillars collapsed outwards, this lead to the collapse of the roof and two further pillars. These were replaced by pillars of the Decorated style, the work being completed in 1345.
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE ABBEY
Notable on the north side pillars are the thirteenth century wall paintings, showing Jesus on the cross and scenes with Mary, his mother. Bearing in mind their sheer antiquity, these have survived the ravages of time surprisingly well. What have not, are the paintings depicting the saints on the south facing pillars. These were quite literally "de-faced" during the reformation, Sir Richard Lee, a military engineer, had been employed to destroy the monastic buildings and much of the iconic art within the abbey church itself.
St Albans had been surrendered to the crown (Henry VIII) on 5th December 1539, it was, erroneously, thought that the abbey church would become an Anglican Cathedral, as had already happened at Peterborough. This was not to be the case - in 1553 it was purchased for £400 by the people of St Albans for use as their parish church.
What had been a prestigious, wealthy and thriving abbey had now turned into a parish church, for ever short of funds. The inevitable decay took place over the following three hundred years, by the early nineteenth century this large building was in such a sad state of repair that only the choir and presbytery were safe to use.
THE CHOIR AND TOWER
The Choir ceiling consists of a number of decorated wooden panels depicting the crests of ancient kings and religious luminaries, but also coats of arms of nations which were politically important at the time. These panels had been covered over in the seventeenth century with art of a much poorer nature. Whilst structural work was being undertaken during 1875, the panels dating from around 1370, that we see today were revealed.
The wooden Choir stalls are High Victorian and not of any particular note.
It is difficult to actually admire the area of the Choir when above you are the superbly decorated arches of the crossing, above which stands the magnificent 1077 tower. This is the oldest cathedral tower in the country, its Roman brick walls are 2.13 metres (7ft) thick. Amazingly, those re-cycled bricks were already over seven hundred years old when Robert the Mason constructed the tower.
The magnificently vibrant tower ceiling, painted by Janet Lenton, which we see today, is actually a 1950 reproduction of the fifteenth century original. One of the original, extremely faded and shrunken, rose panels is displayed on the wall of the north presbytery aisle.
Above the ceiling - this is after all a bell tower - are hung twelve bells, another unique boast for this particular cathedral - the only ring of twelve bells in the country! The Bells date from 1699 to 1935.
THE HIGH ALTER (WALLINGFORD) SCREEN
This was a form of privacy screen on a massive and highly decorated scale. The purpose of the High Alter Screen was actually to separate the monks from the many hundreds of pilgrims pouring through the church on a daily basis. The monks could pray in silence and privacy away from the hubbub of the screaming masses on the other side of the screen.
The screen was built in 1484, as a replacement for a much lower one that originally allowed the monks to see the shrine to St Alban over the top of it. Although there is an almost identical screen in Winchester Cathedral - built a few years before by the same builder, Wallingford, these screens were rare due to their sheer cost. The High Alter Screen at St Albans today is a largely restored piece of history. Much damage was done during the dissolution - all of the figures were torn down and destroyed. The statues now standing on the screen are the choice of its restorer, Lord Aldenham, who during the 1890's saw through the restoration of the screen to its full glory.
Competing with the screen for your attention is the superb ceiling above it which stretches the length of the presbytery. This is an entirely wooden construction, the oak having been donated by King Henry III. It was redecorated during the fifteenth century by Abbot Wheathampstead and bears the symbols of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.
THE ROSE WINDOW AND NORTH TRANSEPT
Quite what Robert, the Norman builder, would have made of a huge rose window being inserted in his original North Transept is anyone's guess. However, in a sense it represents the rise from the near ashes of St Albans Cathedral.
Various wealthy and in some cases well known benefactors have left their mark here at St Albans. Without them, this large church would never have been restored. The most notable was Sir George Gilbert Scott - architect of St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial in London - son of a clergyman; most of his working life was spent restoring cathedrals. Sadly, he died in 1871 before completing the works at St Albans.
In his footsteps followed the wealthy and well meaning Lord Grimthorpe, who was an amateur architect, regrettably he had neither the skill or experience of Scott. Grimthorpe had little feeling for historical architecture and inflicted much damage - 'acts of vandalism' as Archdeacon Grant described his renovations. It was indeed Grimthorpe that we have to thank for the rose window. The stained glass however is of a much later date, sponsored by Laporte Industries in celebration of their centenary, it was installed in 1989.
Grimthorpe was still at work when the church became the seat of the Bishop of St Albans and therefore a Cathedral in 1877. The first Bishop, Thomas Legh Claughton was approaching retirement and found himself charged with raising huge funds for the restoration of the Cathedral AND being at odds with a benefactor whose taste he despised.
THE WATCHING LOFT or CHAMBER
This is a Cathedral full of unique treasures, undoubtedly one of which is the only surviving watching loft in the country. Constructed from oak in the fifteenth century, this was an early form of guard post, allowing the monks and elder townsmen to keep guard over the shrine and treasures left by pilgrims in honour of St Alban. Superbly preserved carvings in the oak depict scenes of fifteenth century every-day life, including, rather controversially here in a house of God, one of bear-bating.
THE SHRINE TO ST ALBAN
The very reason for the church's being is located behind the High Alter Screen and watched over by the loft - the Chapel of St Alban, containing the Shrine.
The Shrine, as it is presented now, is almost a total recreation of the original. During the reformation, it was smashed to pieces; the Purbeck marble base was used for road building material. Having destroyed the Shrine, the Lady Chapel beyond was bricked up across the line of the three arches into St Albans Chapel.
In 1872 when the wall was demolished fragments from the original shrine pedestal were discovered. This allowed in 1991, what is thought to be, a highly accurate reconstruction, topped off by a splendid new red silk canopy covering the Shrine itself.
THE LADY CHAPEL
The Lady Chapel at St Albans was a thirteenth century addition to the original Norman church. As was the convention, the Lady Chapel was built at the east end of the church in honour of the Virgin Mary.
The building work carried out here was to the highest standard and lasted from 1257 to 1320. Intracate stonework - particularly the superb window frames and the incredible fan vaulted ceiling was much more complex and decorative than similar features in the original church.
Presumably in order to save money on repairs and maintenance, the Lady Chapel was walled off from the church in 1553. It was subsequently let to the boys grammar school for the following three hundred years.
In 1871 the school moved into the only remaining part of the original abbey - the Great Gateway, the wall was demolished and the church restored to its full size. The Chapel was in a sad state of repair, sponsorship was sought from various local women's groups. To his credit, Lord Grimthorpe topped up the fund and set about restoring the Chapel in a far more sympathetic manner than he had other parts of this great church.
The Lady Chapel at St Albans now makes an attractive wedding venue, funerals are also held here.
ST ALBANS CATHEDRAL AT THE HEART OF THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
This is not just a mere site of pilgrimage, nor even a particularly well known tourist attraction. Indeed, of all the cathedrals that we have visited in this country, this may well be the least well known one. One senses however that it is very much the heart of this lovely old town.
At the time of our visit, St Albans Cathedral was being re-wired for state of the art sound, not only are choral masses held here - the choirs being taken from many local schools, but concerts are a regular feature of life at the Cathedral too. The biennial International Organ Festival is a sell out event.
A FIVE STAR RECOMMENDATION
St Albans Cathedral certainly left its mark on my wife and I. Whatever your religious views, if you have any interest whatsoever in heritage, architecture and history, then this must be one of the most accessible places in which to indulge that interest.
We very much look forward to returning to St Albans and its Cathedral, it truly is a fascinating place to spend time - at the same time a place where time stands still
Visitor Enquiries Telephone: 01727 860780 - Monday to Saturday 10.30 - 16.30.
The Cathedral is open from 08.00 to 17.45 all year round. (Closes at 13.00 on Christmas Day)
There is no charge to enter the Cathedral, but "generous donations" are requested. Gift Aid envelopes are provided for donations - please Gift Aid any donation that you make.
No photographic permits are required.
Guided Tours are offered by the Honorary Guides at 11.30 and 14.30 on Weekdays, 11.30 and 14.00 on Saturdays and 14.30 on Sundays. Guided tours are free of charge.
The Gift Shop is open Monday to Saturday 10.00 to 17.00, Sunday 13.00 to 17.00.
The Café at the Abbey is open 10:00 - 16:30 Monday to Saturday: Sunday teas 14:30 - 17:00 (staffed by voluntary teams).