Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Day Out in St. Albans

Tuesday, September 16, 2008
St. Albans, Hertfordshire

I had heard a great deal about the lovely little town of St. Albans. When my friend Shahnaz Bhagat arrived in London last night with her husband Mukarram and suggested we spend the day together, I thought immediately of getting away from the city and catching up with them in a charming medieval town that Time forgot. They were sporting enough to place themselves in my hands and we were off, meeting at King's Cross and taking the Capital Connect train to the hamlet. To our enormous surprise, we got there in under fifteen minutes on an express train that took us past miles of bright green fields into the country.

Because they hadn't eaten breakfast, we made a bee-line for the Tourist Information Center in the middle of the Town Square to inquire about the location of the nearest restaurants. The little research I had done last night, by consulting my guide books, had pointed to a pub lunch at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, reputed to be one of the oldest pubs in England and dating from the 1200s. So off we went, past the handsome Clock Tower whose vivid blue face and golden figures proudly proclaimed the hour. A delightful walk past St. Alban's School for Boys took us towards the ancient stone walls of the city and the handsome facade of St. Albans Cathedral all of which breathed history through its aged stone.

But because our tummies beckoned, we pressed on, strolling along serene country lanes past old homes whose cottage gardens were still full of late summer blooms. The Pub was picture-perfect and before long, we were seated in its darkened interior being waited on by a cute and very obliging bar tender named Nick who took our orders for his best draft lagers. As we nursed our drinks in the shadow of a giant Ingelnook fireplace, we took in the low-hung beams on the ceilings and the aged furniture. The place had a venerable dignity and we were so glad we chose to have a meal there. Though it took frightfully long for our food to arrive at our table, we gladly excused the long wait as everything was superlative. We ordered the Chicken Breast which came with a basil mash and baby carrots, the Rib Eye Steak with a balsamic vinegar gravy and perfectly done chips and the grilled hake with a crab mash, the most succulent aubergines and caramelized red peppers and a dressing make with garlic-flavored spring onions. Every single item we tasted was exquisite and though we were stuffed, we could not resist ordering a dessert that we decided to split--a wonderful Sticky Toffee Pudding that swam in warm caramel and was served with custard. I am convinced that pub food in England is not what it used to be--leather-like meat and overcooked vegetables. With so many of them having become gastropubs, the pressure is on to produce mouthwatering menus and the end result is satisfied customers who can look forward to excellent meals as part of their tourist experiences.

Replete with our repast, we went out to embrace the city striding across the Verulamium Park (the Roman name for the city) towards the Cathedral which, of course, we had to visit. Indeed, the stone carved altar was breathtaking as was the Rose Window and other stained glass. Today, the Cathedral also houses an Abbey Church among whose treasures are a copy of the Magna Carta (though this is not for public display). Amazingly, the roses were still aboom in the gardens outside and their fragrance quite beguiled us as we walked by.

Then, we followed Fishpool Road towards the quaint Village of St. Michael where the raised footpaths spoke of times past when the villagers' only form of transport was horse-drawn carriages. The raised footpaths, almost like platforms that lined one side of the street, enabled ladies and gentlemen to alight easily from theor carriages and enter their homes whose doors were brightly colored and adorned with interesting knockers.

Then, on we pressed arriving at the Kingsway Watermill, an ancient building that ground corn in the Middle Ages and continued to do so until very recently. In fact, it is still a working mill and today grinds feed for cows, horses and pigs. A really heartwarming restaurant called The Waffle House has sprung up on the old premises and after we had toured the fascinating museum and seen the great big wheel that turned the mill as well as the equipment and instruments used by the millers of a past era, we could not resist ordering one of their dessert waffles for tea. It arrived at our table--a pecan studded waffle, swimming in a creamy butterscotch sauce and served with a dollop of vanilla ice-cream. It is difficult to express in words exactly how marvelous this concoction was and had we but space, we would easily have consumed one each--good job we ordered just one and split it.

Then, fortified enough to tackle some more walking, we strode past a busy road that carried traffic towards nearby Luton airport and arrived at the ruins of the Roman Theater. The Romans had made the town their base and named it after the River Ver that flowed by its banks--the same river that allowed the watermill to function. Having seen the area being grazed over by flocks of placid sheep, we backtracked, arriving at the Roman Museum, which being past five 'o clock was closed. This left us enough daylight to cross the Verulamium Park past a lake filled with ducks and geese and the remains of an old Roman Wall and brought us back to the pub and then the town center. School boys wearing their jackets and ties poured out of their school at the end of another day and brought much vibrancy to the main square which was lined with trendy stores and restaurants.

St. Albans is named for an early Christian martyr, for after the fall of the Roman Empire, the town was taken over by the Saxons who brought Christianity with them and ended up converting it into a pleasant rural hamlet. The combination of Roman and Saxon history, the charm and antiquity of its outlying villages with their sagging roof lines and tottering beams, brings to the area today a rare opportunity to experience life as it might have been lived in England in past centuries without venturing too far away from the heart of London.

We truly had an unexpectedly memorable day and I am so glad that I was able to explore this town in the company of some of my dearest friends who also happen to appreciate these outdoor spaces as much as I do.

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