Exploring the Roman ruins of St Albans

St Albans boasts a bustling street market, a patchwork cathedral, wonky townhouses and more history than you can shake a stick at.

Travelling to St Albans

St Albans is a 15 minute train ride from where we live, making it a perfect day trip for a sunny spring Saturday. This is the route we took, starting from the station and winding through the town centre, Verulamium Park, catching the Roman Wall, the Roman Theatre and circling back down Fishpool Street. The full circuit ended up being about 14,000 steps.

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Warning: If you’re visiting St Albans from London like us, make sure you buy a ticket at your station. Don’t fall into the trap of using your contactless, or you will be fined once you reach St Albans. Learn from our mistakes and maybe it will have been worth it (sob).

St Albans Saturday Market

Planning our trip for Saturday not only worked in our favour for the weather, we also managed to catch the weekly market along Market Place and French Row.

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Left: Market Place, St Albans. Right: Olives for days at the olive stall.

I managed to restrain myself from buying out the olive stand, but we couldn’t resist the saffron and chorizo smells coming from the paella stall.

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Left: Papa Paella. Right: Two regular chicken & chorizo paellas to go.

After walking around the whole market, we returned and ordered two regular chicken & chorizo paellas to go, which we took to a bench by the Clock Tower, before deciding to follow a little alleyway which turned out in the Vintry Garden by the Cathedral.

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Left: The Boot Inn. Right: The Clock Tower.

The grass was covered in lounging couples and young families enjoying the sun, and we squeezed fresh lemon over our warm paella with crispy bits and felt right at home.

The Cathedral & Abbey Church of St Alban

More good timing! When we poked our heads inside St Albans Cathedral we found an orchestra rehearsing for a performance. After strolling around the aisles reading about the history, we settled into a couple of chairs and listened to the four different singers performing extracts from Handel’s Messiah with the orchestra accompanying them.

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The eastern facade of the Cathedral from Vintry Garden.

While the singers brought tears to Matt’s eyes, I gazed around the strange architecture of the Cathedral, a charming patchwork of different styles throughout history. A mock medieval tapestry to the side of the aisle told the story behind the juxtaposing architectural styles. The inconsistency seems to be down to parts of the building collapsing and needing repairs, running out of money, and sourcing stone both from quarries and from Roman ruins.

After our impromptu show viewing we walked through the Cathedral grounds towards Verulamium Park, passing some very pretty streets and a historic pub that claimed to have housed Oliver Cromwell for a night during the Civil War.

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Left: Historical pub Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Right: Orchard Street off the Cathedral grounds.

Turns out Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest pub in England! (This is a shock as the Royal Oak in Winchester has long claimed to hold this title.)

Verulamium Park

This beautiful park spread across over 100 acres is actually named after the ancient Roman city which stood on the same site. It was excavated in the 1930s, uncovering the Hypocaust Mosaic, the Roman Walls, the London Gate and many archaeological objects from everyday life in a Roman city, now housed in the Verulamium Museum on the outskirts of the park.

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Left: The view towards the Cathedral from Verulamium Park. Right: The Roman Wall of St Albans.

We started by the London Gate to the South edge of the park. There were lots of helpful signs illustrating what the original gate would have looked like and describing how it would have been used to enter and exit the Roman city. I found it really fascinating imagining how massive this old city would have been, now just an empty green space.

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Verulam Lake, built in the 1920s and fed by River Ver.

We did a u-turn and followed the path past the Roman Walls through the centre of the park, passing oh so many picnics and lots of great dogs.

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Left: The walkway between Verulam Lake and the River Ver. Right: Park selfie.

As we crossed the old bridge over the lake, it started to rain, and I was all up for running back into town to find a cafe, but Matt persuaded me to brave the elements and check off the rest of the Roman ruins.

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Left: The Model Boating Lake. Right: The Old Bridge.

We actually totally missed the Roman Mosaic and Hipocaustum, which is in the dead centre of the park behind the outdoor gym. Woops!

The Roman Theatre

Luckily we made it to the Roman Theatre, which can be found beyond the Verulamium Museum, past St Michael’s Church and across an A road. The excavation site is on Gorhambury Estate and costs £2 to enter, but this comes with an optional tour guide who we found extremely informative.

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The excavated Roman Theatre.

The tour guide explained how in the time of Verulamium, the theatre would have been at the centre of town, rather than right at the edge as it is now. Rich figures and officials would have paid to put on shows, which were free to the public, and would have included all kinds of genres from romance and comedy to drama and crime.

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The Roman Theatre excavation site from different view points.

Our walk back from the excavation site made me fall in love with St Albans even more. I would gladly have moved into any of the little houses on Fishpool Street, which wound itself over the river and back into town.

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Charming houses on Fishpool Street.

We made our way through the market as it was beginning to set down its stalls, searching for a cafe to grab a cup of tea before our train. We ended up in Cafe Roma on St Peter’s Street, where we treated ourselves to a bakewell tart.

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Left: Ordering some much-needed sustenance. Right: Enjoying some tea at Cafe Roma.

Verdict

Despite the unfortunate start to our trip, St Albans managed to pick up our spirits and by the end of the day we were totally charmed by the city. I’d love to come back to see the Verulamium Museum and the Roman Mosaic and Hipocaustum, and try out a few of the pubs we passed by.

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Sophie Whitehead

I’m Sophie, a writer and blogger living in London, traveling, eating, and telling you all about it.

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