A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the area north of London that includes the counties of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire.
St Albans, Hertfordshire
As you approach St Albans in Hertfordshire it has all the bearings of a modern British city, which it officially is. However, the outward appearance is deceptive, as it has a long and rich history.
Based on an ancient British tribal settlement, it was originally called Verulamium by the Romans. It was the first major town for travellers heading north out of Londinium via ‘Watling Street’, and became the second-largest town in Roman Britain after the capital. There are extensive Roman remains including a theatre, dated to around 130AD, a hypocaust (underfloor heating system), city walls and a city gate.
But the Roman era highlight for me is the Verulamium Museum which features some of the finest Roman mosaics and wall plasters outside the Mediterranean. Exhibits include the perfectly intact Shell Mosaic, bronze Venus figurine, and Roman glass jug.
The town was renamed Alban, after a local Roman soldier was beheaded on the orders of the anti-Christian authorities sometime around the late third century. He is said to have sheltered an injured priest and helped him to elude capture. Thus Alban became the first British Christian martyr. A Benedictine abbey was later founded on the execution site, and St Albans School, which was founded on the grounds in 948, is one of the oldest schools in the world. The present huge church at St Alban’s dates back to 1077. It was once the most important abbey in England and the first draft of Magna Carta was written here. The famous monastic scribe Matthew Paris lived and worked in the abbey during the reign of Henry III. Here, he wrote his Historia Anglorum, an almost journalistic account of England’s past. The Tudor powerhouse Cardinal Wolsey was also abbot of St Alban’s. In 1877, the abbey was made a cathedral.
In medieval times, the town was the scene for two major battles during the Wars of the Roses, and features in Shakespeare’s history plays covering this time. An inn, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, survives from the medieval period, and is one of the oldest pubs in England. It’s a good shout for food and drink during your visit.
St Alban’s is a small city, yet full of surprises.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)