Note: I’ve gotten a few questions of how on earth I got back from HP Studios. It continued to rain throughout my three-hour tour of the studios, so I was expecting the worst: at least a 40-minute walk to Watson Junction, a major bus junction in Hertfordshire, and a 15- or 20-minute bus ride back to St. Albans. Luckily, I left Leavesden right as a double-decker Harry Potter bus (sounds magical, right?) pulled up to the entrance. This was my first double-decker experience, which was particularly fun as they had a TV screen at the front of the second story that showed interviews with Warwick Davis as well as Warner Bros. previews.
As I’ve only vaguely mentioned before, I spent the last eight days in St. Albans with Trinity Cathedral’s choir, which was invited for a week-long residency at the Abbey and Cathedral of St. Albans. Some incredible Trinity members helped plan daily excursions and sight-seeing tours, which I’ll be discussing in the posts to follow (accompanied, of course, with pictures). Because I don’t sing -- or perhaps shouldn’t sing, for the good of many around me -- I was left during rehearsal times and a few evensongs to do whatever I wished. And of course, being in a country that was completely alien to me, I spent that time exploring.
I’m addicted to exploring. Regardless of my familiarity with my surroundings, there’s always more to be learned through wandering aimlessly around, preferably while armed with either a map or a smartphone. I love seeing new things, and in unknown places in particular, I love experiencing new cultures from beyond the confines of tourist traps and beaten paths.
Years ago, when I was an employee at Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of North Carolina, I had a habit of exploring at least once a day. It’s a hard temptation to ignore when in the heart of at least 16 mountain trails, each one more unique than the last. I also had a habit of getting lost while exploring, once being brought back to Kanuga by a police officer after winding up six miles away at Camp David, and twice being led back by locals who were stunned that I’d walked to Hendersonville or some unknown mountain town.
So the day after my Harry Potter experience, I decided to go exploring. I had a plan, of course: Armed with a map of St. Albans, I wanted to see the Roman theatre and Roman mosaic, both artifacts of the Roman city of Verulamium (100s-200s AD), where St. Albans now resides.
I set off while the choir was rehearsing for that day’s evensong, heading past the abbey and St. Albans School (the latter of which educated Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope, in the 1100s as well as Stephen Hawking). I crossed through a beautiful green field spotted with trees that lay just beyond the abbey’s reach, and followed the sound of running water to a series of small waterfalls that emptied into a shallow creek. People waded through the creek, pants rolled to their shins, often accompanied by an overeager dog; and just beyond the creek sat the kind of building that first comes to mind when an American envisions a stereotypical British pub.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which looks so nestled in its green, leafy surroundings that it might have grown there, is the oldest pub in the UK -- stretching all the way back to 793. Its name hints at its original purpose in the early 800s: It was once a cock-fighting pit, and after weaving over crooked, creaking floors through a series of low-ceilinged rooms, you can still find a smaller chamber several steps below the rest called Ye Cock Fighting Pit. Around back is a patio that could double as a convincing garden.
I crossed a low stone bridge and found myself in an expansive green field with low, rolling hills in the distance, which were spotted with the occasional family, baby stroller, or dog. But most fascinating were the two ponds that stretched toward the north, with paths running at equal height to the ponds so that it felt as if you were almost walking on water. Ducks, swans, and geese swam around the edges of the water, nearing any human that might have food, and in the middle of the larger pond I saw an island completely covered by weeping willows whose branches dipped down into the water.
One path took me to a low Roman wall, perhaps ten feet tall -- the remains of a Roman castle and keep in the early 200s. Rounded stone pits hinted at ancient turrets and towers. I followed a different path that cut through Verulamium Park, passed another low stone bridge that led up to the remains of a Roman mansion from the late 100s, and finally emerged onto a narrow street that might have come out of a BBC show.
To one side, a curved bridge led to a cluster of weeping willows and a narrow creek, which met the Kingsbury Watermill from the 500s AD. The building is still left intact, and is now used as a waffle restaurant with outdoor seating perched over the water, tucked away into the trees.
To the other side, a cobbled street led through a series of Bavarian-style cottages, another stereotypical British pub (the Rose and Crown), and more flower-filled window boxes than I could count.
It was the latter direction that I followed in the direction of distant stone towers. These were the towers of St. Michael’s Church, where Francis Bacon was buried in an unmarked grave. (As I later found out, his wife hated him.) The graveyard stretches long before that of the abbey, which between 1077 and the 1500s followed the tradition of the time and buried its parishioners under the stone floor tiles throughout the church.
I’ll say here that even after seeing this tradition in Reims, Paris, Amsterdam, Haarlem, and now St. Albans, London, Cambridge, and Berkshire, I still haven’t gotten used to walking over graves. Winston Churchill seemed to have a similar misgiving: When offered a spot of highest honor at the central entrance to Westminster Abbey for his grave, he remarked that he’d been stepped over enough in his life, thank you.
Just across the street lay my ultimate destination: the Roman theatre, the last vestiges of what might have been a gladiator arena or a dramatic venue, surrounded by wineries, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other shops in the late first and early second centuries.
But it was closed.
Like much of the rest of St. Albans, it had closed at 5 p.m., and it was now 5:10.
I tried my best to circle the theatre, standing on tiptoe to catch whatever glimpse I could over the high hedges, and finally gave up.
One glance over my shoulder revealed a long, lone path that looked like something out of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, or even Emma. One on side of the path, beyond the low, crooked wooden fence, stretched rolling hill after rolling hill. On the other lay a pasture dotted with sheep.
It was too perfect a picture opportunity to pass up.
In one of my first posts, I confessed a true shortcoming about my love for exploring when I admitted that:
" although I tend to have quite a reasonable attention span when it matters, I also tend to be easily distracted in novel situations. If the typical joke is “Ooh, shiny!”, mine would be something along the lines of “Ooh, cobblestones! Baguettes! Statues! Basilicas! Vespas! French words! Macarons! Cute outfits!”
In other words, it took me all of three minutes to find myself completely separated from those damned tram tracks, and without the aid of a map, each and every winding street looked like a replica of the last. "
The sheep led me to the longhorns, which led me to a cute cottage, to a shaded lane, to a dirt path into the hills, to a sunlit meadow flecked with wildflowers.
And suddenly, after taking one too many turns onto different paths, I didn’t have a clue where I was.
It’s funny how a map of St. Albans doesn’t help too much when you wind up outside the city, because there was one thing of which I was certain: We weren’t in St. Albans anymore.
I continued on, and within a few minutes saw what looked like either a Roman temple or a Georgian plantation -- the columns confound the two. Either way, it looked better suited for a government building than for the Hertfordshire countryside.
And it looked vaguely familiar.
I wound my way to it, and discovered the New Gorhambury Estate -- the mansion of none other than Francis Bacon, which had since become a mansion. I peered into the gardens, stared out at the perfectly cut, bright green lawns and rounded shrubs, and nodded approvingly toward the only Subaru I’d seen in Europe -- a cobalt Impreza hatchback parked near the employee’s entrance.
In case this wasn’t obvious before, I didn’t have cellular data while abroad, and relied exclusively on Wi-Fi.
There’s about as many Wi-Fi networks in the English countryside as there are Starbucks. And let’s just say that Starbucks are so rare that even glimpsing one close to the hotel had Ryan in hysterics of happiness.
So I continued on my way, chose a route at random when I reached a five-point intersection of paths far too narrow for even a European car, and plowed on.
My next sight was one that I had expected -- and greatly hoped -- to find close by: the Old Gorhambury Estate, the mansion of Francis’s father, Sir Nicholas Bacon. It once stood in grandeur, with multiple wings, turrets, and courtyards. But 500 years takes its toll on buildings, and this one was left to ruin. What remained were crumbling bricks and stones, stairways that led to thin air, and large windows -- panes still intact -- that gazed out on the wilderness beyond. What most hinted at its former glory was the home’s original back entrance, which must have been trivial compared to its front façade, but which still stood 20 feet tall in sculpted stone, archways, and pillars.
If this weren’t already clear, I’m a sucker for ruins. More so than museum or History Channel documentaries, I’ll travel for hours to find a good set of ruins. How lucky I am to have wound up in Arizona, which boasts some incredible ones on the way to Flagstaff and Four Corners. My Southwest bucket list, which outlines everything I’d like to see in and around Arizona before I finish grad school, is something like this:
- The original London Bridge in Lake Havasu
- Kartchner Caverns
Beyond this point, however, my exploration became more of a nuisance than an uplifting experience. Two hours later, I was still to be found wandering aimlessly somewhere between Redbournbury and Hemel Hempstead (if you consult a map, you’ll see that neither of these are even remotely close to St. Albans), and although I was perfectly aware of my surroundings and didn’t once feel in danger, I was ready for a meal, a toilet, and a rest.
Before anyone asks, no, there were no taxis, buses, or police officers for miles and miles around. These were back roads and footpaths that passed by the occasional bed and breakfast or cottage with a cheerful woman in the garden, watering her peonies.
By the time I started seeing signs of life beyond sheep and cattle, however, there was no point in asking directions: After seeing an old sign for Prae Wood, a forest on the crest of a distant hill, I could bring to mind a rough map of the area that I’d consulted before leaving for Leavesden the previous day. A glance at the sky confirmed the direction I needed to follow, and it’s not like I would have accepted offers for a ride back to the village.
No, the most dangerous thing I encountered on my walk was a particularly pesky bee that followed me so closely that it got stuck in my hair until I was able to shake it free.
Thanks to the compass app that Apple won’t let you delete, I was able to find my way back to St. Albans. When I reached the top of a hill, I could see far in the distance the towers of the abbey and a series of cottages comprising the town’s centre.
I met up with the choir for dinner at the Peahen, still nursing my aching feet, and we ended the night with darts at Garibaldi, a small pub close to the Sopwell Nunnery that featured its very own pub cats.
Pub cats should be my life mascot. In both Amsterdam and St. Albans, you’re likely to find a resident feline in pubs, bars, restaurants, and cafés, strutting around like they own the place (and they probably do).
In all, I had a wonderful day. I was sore, exhausted, and in need of a shower and nap, but throughout the rest of my time in St. Albans there were more than half a dozen occasions where these travels became not just relevant, but important. Whether it was pointing tourists (or choir members) in the right direction when in search of ruins or a good place to eat or drinks, or giving more background information on the Bacon family and surrounding county of Hertfordshire, those four hours (and 9.51 miles, according to my phone) were some of the best during my time there…and that’s saying a lot.