04.09.2012 - 08.09.2012 23 °C
I have now sworn off Eurail passes for ever. Just when you think you might get reasonable value out of them, the railway system's rules stamp on your plans with pronouncements such as " If you had wanted tickets for that, you should have made a definite booking months ago" and "there will be a surcharge for that service which is greater than the cost of an ordinary ticket." So it proved to be when requiring tickets to travel from Amsterdam to London; the only method available was to pay full price as far as Brussels on one train, then change to the Eurostar to London. The only information to be gained from a short stop in Brussels - first at the wrong station having got off prematurely- was that there are plenty of ladies of the night available in the Brussels afternoon, handy to transport.
Border security seemed extra tight for the Brussels to London segment, with the authorities ready to seize Miriam " Are you carrying a knife in your suitcase?" However, with my cavalier comment, " That's just a pair of manicure scissors," a search was not deemed necessary. After the short, speedy Eurostar dash beneath the waters of the English Channel, we alighted at St Pancras station. Waiting for us at the exit of the Eurostar area (where all were again required to have their passports inspected) was my friend Mark Dupont, who I worked with in the early eighties in the Commonwealth Employment Service. Mark shepherded us to the suburban trainlines to head out to St Albans, just beyond the northern fringes of London.
After getting settled in to the Quality Hotel, a name not backed up by performance or any other attribute, Mark drove us to the Cafe Rouge for a very pleasant meal, French in style, and tastier than many we had endured in La Belle France. In subsequent days Mark kindly chauffeured us around the features of interest in the town, of which there were a surprising number.
To understand the town, you need to visit the remains of the Roman settlement that began in the first century AD. It was known as Verulamium, and was one of the settlements virtually destroyed in raids by the female warrior formerly known as Boadicea. Later, around 250 AD, a pagan named Alban who sheltered a Christian priest was executed by beheading. The legend goes that at the moment the sword sliced off his head, the executioner eyes flew out of their sockets leaving him blind. Alban was later declared a saint, and the cathedral in the town holds his shrine, as well as that of another not so well known saint.
The cathedral that bears his name is grand and dignified, with magnificent stained glass windows both ancient and contemporary; one that was opened by Princess Di giving a modern slant to one end of the building. There is graffiti from the 1600s, painted decorations that have survived on the walls from the 1500s, in fact it is amazingly intact in its internal structures and decor.
Also at what was once the Roman settlement of Veralamium, there is an excellent museum with a more extensive range of finds of the Roman era than I have ever seen. Virtually intact skeletons of some of the inhabitants, young and old, tools, jewellery, games, large and majestic floor mosaics that have miraculously survived, with informative commentary to support them, give a strong representation of the daily lives of the common people who lived here in that era. Close to the museum there are significant remains of what was a large Roman theatre, however we were unable to see it up close as it was shut for the day.
In the town of St Albans itself, the core retains many buildings from the distant past including a substantial square Norman era tower surfaced with chunks of flint held together with mortar. The Lady Eleanor, who has already been mentioned in connection with Bordeaux, appears again here, or at least it is reputed that when she died her body was laid out in state close to this tower.
Over the four days of our visit to St Albans, it was fascinating to see such a rich historical heritage so close to London, yet seeming to be a world away. In fact, it's only twenty minutes by train from the capital. I must give special thanks to Mark for being so generous with his time and friendship in ensuring we saw everything my quirky interests demanded within the limited time available. A bientot, mon ami!