WANDER around St Albans and the centuries just roll away.
One moment you’re gazing at the intricate mosaic floor of a large Roman town house – complete with sophisticated underfloor heating system – and the next you’re staring at the ornate carvings that adorn one of the country’s great cathedrals.
The Hypocaust in Verulamium Park is a marvel of Roman engineering that reminds us that this area just outside the modern city of St Albans was the third biggest town in Roman Britain after London and Colchester, with much of the ancient city unexcavated to this day.
Nearby lies Watling Street, a historic route used by ancient Britons and paved by the Romans, running in a line from the Kent coast at Dover, crossing the Thames in London and heading north towards Manchester and Wroxeter in the north west, then the fourth largest Roman settlement.
It was one route among the network of thousands of miles of road built when Britain was part of the Roman empire, that extraordinary period from AD43 to 410 when Roman influence stretched from Hadrian’s Wall to Morocco, Egypt and Syria.
And it was here in the third century that one local citizen gave shelter to a stranger fleeing from persecution: a Christian priest now known as Amphibalus. Inspired by how important faith was to the priest, Alban asked to be taught more about Christianity.
By the time the Roman authorities caught up with Amphibalus, Alban’s new-found faith would not allow him to surrender his friend. Instead, he exchanged clothes with the man to allow his escape. Threatened with the same punishment intended for the runaway, Alban refused to renounce his beliefs and was led up to the hillside above the town, where he was beheaded, and soon hailed as Britain’s first saint.
Alban’s grave on this hillside quickly became a place of pilgrimage and it is said King Offa of Mercia founded a monastery here in 793. After the Norman invasion a new church was commissioned built from bricks and tiles saved from the ruins of Roman Verulamium and completed in 1115.
The medieval Abbey was famous as a place of learning but it did not survive the Reformation, when Henry VIII ordered the destruction of the monasteries.
Centuries later, wealthy Victorian benefactors paid for the building to be repaired, so that by 1877 what had previously been a local parish church became a cathedral and the seat of the Bishop of St Albans.
Nowadays the soaring pillars and intricate carvings provide a visually overwhelming backdrop to the story of an ordinary man doing an extraordinary thing, and a fitting reminder that his shrine is the oldest known place of Christian pilgrimage in the country.