I apologize for the length of this post which really should be two blogs but I am very behind with 2017 posts!
I spent a great deal of my youth in St. Albans, and as we were staying in High Wycombe last Summer, it was a relatively easy destination (albeit after the dreaded Handy Cross double roundabout!) and we set off on a rather cloudy day to visit the site of my misspent, but happy youth. St. Albans is about 20 miles north of London in the county of Hertfordshire, formerly the site of a Roman city called Verulamium. Poor Alban was executed by the Romans for the crime of being the first British Christian (at least who was caught), and a lovely cathedral was erected on the site of his untimely demise by some pious local converts to Christianity. Shortly afterwards the Romans said, “Screw this bloody cold place called Britannia, let’s go back to Italia!”
I always loved growing up there so it was a pleasant surprise to see that little had changed other than the addition of a multi story car park. The lovely wide, tree-lined High Street still exists as the site of the wonderful market that is held twice a week as farmers and local merchants sell their produce. From light bulbs to locally grown cabbages, pashminas to potatoes everything is available among the hustle and bustle of ‘market day!’ I used to love shopping with my mother for soggy celery and bloody beetroots that were inevitably hauled home under a cloud burst of rain after we had huddled in the bus shelter waiting for a number 8 bus back to Woodland Drive and later Colney Heath Lane.
The day we visited all kinds of memories flooded back walking along the ancient 15th century Christopher Row past the Old Clock Tower and across George St to the Abbey School and the Cathedral enclosure.
We ate our sandwiches, purchased at Marks & Spencers delicious food hall, in a garden by the Abbey grounds before heading down to a famous pub in Verulamium Park. ‘Ye Olde Fighting Cocks’ is reckoned to be one of the oldest pubs in the county, as the crooked building attests to the march of time and the many drunken brawls that undoubtedly echoed in the surrounding alley.
Circling back to George Street this view of the Abbey was quite lovely. There is an ancient oak tree at the side of the Abbey that is reputed to be haunted by some poor woman in white who was left at the altar or some such rubbish – probably the tree rustled in the wind and terrified a local drunk staggering up the hill from ‘Ye Olde Fighting Cocks’!
Finally as we passed St Albans School (one of England’s best public grammar schools for boys) and puffed our way back up George Street, to what was once my parent’s favourite steakhouse, The Tudor Tavern. I was a bit upset to see it is now a Thai restaurant, but as long as this venerable old site is being taken care of then all is good. After all nothing like a good Pad Thai in a good old British setting.
We didn’t venture over to the Roman ruins (of which many are being unearthed) after this morning of memories but decided to tootle off to Ayot St Lawrence – a nearby tiny village, to see Shaw’s Corner, where the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw lived from 1906 until his death in 1950. It was here in his garden shed that he produced some of his most famous works such as Pygmalion and Major Barbara. The shed is constructed on a turnstile so he could always have the sun shining in the right position to write his masterpieces. I must remember to have Bob build me a shed that turns around…….with air conditioning, a wine ‘fridge and a 78″ screen TV.
So……we actually went to Canterbury on our last trip to the UK back in 2015 but I feel I must mention it as it is such a beautiful cathedral city with much historical significance and a vibrant university life. Bob and I had gone ostensibly to see our niece and nephew who were studying at the University of Kent. Kent is a lovely county known as the garden of England and the Eurostar train hurtles out of the Channel Tunnel from the beautiful Normandy countryside into Kent where travellers are treated to a bit of bucolic British countryside views.
We were fortunate enough to stay in the grounds of the cathedral at the Cathedral Lodge Hotel and it was absolutely heavenly! I recommend this lovely, peaceful hotel, even for non Christians, as it has a wonderful library within the hotel and in such an historically interesting site. Laying in bed at night and seeing the great cathedral lit up from our bedroom window was a truly spiritual experience. Entrance to the cathedral itself is included if you are a guest at the hotel, as is parking. I almost had a nervous breakdown negotiating the one way maze of tiny streets to find the hotel, and after an embarrasing 12 point turn in front of several bemused locals who no doubt found my potty mouth a good source of interesting new vocabulary, we finally arrived inside the cathedral grounds.
Here comes a history lesson – zip forward if you wish to remain ignorant – carry on if you need sleep medication!
The Archbishop of Canterbury is Primate of the Church of England and as such he is the spiritual head of the Anglican church. Originally the Archbishops were under the Roman Catholic Popes but Henry VIII had a bit of a quarrel with the Pope when he refused to annul his marriage to the Spanish Princess, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry was a second son and not destined to be king but his older brother, Arthur, died at age 15 and Henry subsequently became the monarch at age 11. For political reasons with Spain, he ended up marrying his dead brother’s wife (who claimed her marriage to Arthur was never consummated) and they were married quite happily, it seems, for 24 years until poor old Catherine was put aside in favour of Anne Boleyn, who Henry was completely besotted with. He desperately needed a male heir (and prevent the former Plantagenet rulers coming back into power) and Catherine, now 40 years old had only managed to produce one child who lived, a girl – Mary. After much begging, pleading and creative reasoning as to why his marriage should be annulled, Pope Clement obstinately still refused to countenance it, and Henry married Anne anyway and said ‘screw you’ to the Pope. A lot of unfortunate beheadings followed and Henry declared himself head of the Protestant Church of England (a bit like Catholic church really, but not quite so theatrically flamboyant and easier to understand as the Mass is said in English, not Latin). Henry discovered that the church was very, very wealthy indeed and as he was the King, all the revenue, lands and priceless jewels would revert to him. “What a brilliant idea,” he thought as he rampaged through England, destroying all the monasteries and churches that did not convert to Protestantism and the Reformation in England was forthwith born. Why am I telling you all this? Well, with Henry being very annoyed and chopping off heads hither and thither, Archbishop Cranmer wisely decided that the king was always right, and so he obsequiously agreed that Henry should be married to the beautiful Anne and ditch boring old pious Catherine. He became the very first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and the inheritors of this illustrious title have always been spiritual Primates of the Anglican church and the monarch (today – Queen Elizabeth II) is the figure head of the church. Does that explain it?
Inside the beautiful cathedral are relics of important figures in British history. The Black Prince is buried there and his amour is on display…a very brave warrior, he won many medieval battles.
The most venerated icon though is of Thomas A Becket, the rebel-rouser, cohort and dearly beloved friend of Henry II. (see Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole in ‘Becket’ when you get a chance). Like Sir Thomas More with Henry VIII, he also would not kowtow to the concept of the King’s divine right as God’s stand-in on earth. He believed that God was the supreme deity – for this Henry II raged (not in earnest, it is believed) to his knights “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” Well, off some of the more brown-nosing knights rode to Canterbury, and killed poor Thomas on the Cathedral steps. Subsequently, the Pope declared Thomas a Saint and Henry never really recovered from the loss of his friend, and performed many pilgrimages to beg forgiveness for his foolish words. His Ancestor Henry VIII had Thomas’s bones and grave removed during the dissolution of the monasteries but a shrine to him is now inside the great cathedral. He is revered as a saint by both Catholics and Protestants.
Cannot write abut Canterbury without mentioning the Canterbury Tales written by Geoffery Chaucer. Supremely funny and very bawdy medieval tales about a group of pilgrims going to Canterbury to worship at the shrine of Thomas A Becket. Wonderfully relevant tales of every day life in England during the Middle Ages. All brought to life with such clarity and understanding of everyman’s predicaments. Lots of opportunities in Canterbury to experience these marvelous tales as there are several daily performances of Chaucer’s stories within the city walls, performed by very funny actors.
Besides all the historical significance Canterbury is now a very hip town with lots of great shops. restaurants, pubs and artistic, cultural life! Most definitely a wonderful place to visit especially if you are staying in London. Also it’s close to Dover for any European vacations.
The other great ancient cathedral cities in England are York, Lincoln and Winchester, Wells, St Paul’s in London, Christ Church in Oxford, Exeter, Durham, Ely, Norwich, Liverpool, Truro, Chichester, Gloucester, Carlisle, Worcester and Salisbury just to name a few! There are other majestic Abbeys in other spots around the British Isles, but to me the beautiful old Norman churches in the small villages are the epitome of British life when the world was a much simpler place. Rather like the church in Fryerning, Essex, where my grandparents and father and other members of our family are all laid to rest.
All for now – next blog will be about Arundel, West Sussex and Cornwall, with a tiny mention of a sweet place I loved called Dove Cote!