We planned to spend our first full day in London out of London. First, we had to pick up our London Pass and Travelcard. These would give us discounts or free admission for lots of attractions and unlimited use of subways, trains and even those iconic double-decker buses. And yes, I rode on one of those too. Even the natives prefer the view from the second level.
On our way to the London Pass office at Charing Cross we cut through Trafalgar Square. The square was cordoned off for post-New-Year’s-Eve cleaning so we couldn’t stop to feed the pigeons, which have largely been eradicated anyway. But we did see Joanna Lumley, star of the British TV series AbFab. She was launching an animal welfare campaign and at 65, she is indeed, Absolutely Fabulous.
We took a train to St. Alban’s where we met our hosts, the Captain’s Cousin Sue and her husband, Den. Better tour guides we could not have had. They love their city and know a lot about it. Starting at the Church of St. Peter, we walked all around this charming city which has been used as the location for many movies and TV shows, such as several episodes of Inspector Morse.
We had lunch in a wonderful little cafe with Mediterranean dishes on their menu, like my winter vegetable soup with lots of cumin. And I had “sipping chocolate.” Not hot milk with chocolate — that would be “hot chocolate.” This was basically a melted dark chocolate bar in a demitasse cup. Waiter, six more of these if you would, please.
Sufficiently fueled, we went on to tour St. Alban’s Cathedral, the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. The cathedral’s namesake is Alban, a pagan living in Verulamium when the area was part of the Roman Empire. Alban sheltered a Christian priest being persecuted by the Romans, became a convert and then gave his life to protect the priest, sometime around the year 250. The cathedral and abbey weren’t built all at once, but over time, starting about 1700 years ago, so many different styles of architecture including both Saxon and Norman are evident. Restorers are still uncovering hidden secrets, like the fact that early in the structure’s history, the interior walls were elaborately decorated with paintings.
After leaving the cathedral, we stopped for a pint at Ye Old Fighting Cocks, the oldest pub in Britain. We tried several different brews. The Captain, heretofore not much of a beer drinker, was by this point in the trip waxing enthusiastic about local bitters.
Then we walked to Verulamium. A large part of this ancient Roman town has yet to be excavated, but you can see remains of the city walls. Some of the bricks are missing, having been “repurposed” by the clever builders of the nearby St. Albans cathedral. (A little poetic justice, there.) There’s also a display of an old Roman hypocaust, an underground heating system, under a mosaic floor. As I walked into a blustery cold north wind, my feet becoming ice cubes, I could imagine what some young Roman in his sandals and short tunic would have to say about the winter weather at his British post!
Fortunately, I had the chance to warm up at the Gibraltar Castle pub in Harpenden. The owners state that it was first mentioned in local records in 1799, but it is possible that the building predates this by as much as 140 years.
After we bid our hosts goodbye, it was back on the train for the return trip to Hammersmith.
Tomorrow: back and forward in time