ST. ALBANS — Prior to our departure to England this past December, my husband, Chris West, and I decided to visit the Town of St. Albans in Hertfordshire. For Chris, who holds dual citizenship in Britain and America, the visit to our city’s namesake was more than just a tourist trek.
“When we decided to move to St. Albans, Vt., I was reminded that my father went to school in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England,” Chris West recalls. “At the time, I didn’t think much more about it.”
His father, Antony (Tony) West, attended secondary school at the independent educational facility The St. Albans School, and for five years called the city his home. “I didn’t know much about that period in my father’s life,” Chris admitted. “I thought it would be great to see where he went to school; and living in a city of the same name made it even more interesting.”
Young Tony West entered the St. Albans School in September of 1950, at the age of 13. Like many boys his age, he was away from home, and family, for the first time. The following year he befriended another youth, Roger Bradshaw, with whom he shared studies and a passion for under-water swimming.
Fast-forward six decades, both West and Bradshaw had married; raised children and grandchildren of his own; had careers and retirements. Tony West passed away in Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire, in June of 2006.
Upon arriving to spend the holiday with his family, Chris’ mother, Judith West, gave us an official St. Albans School booklet belonging to her late husband. Originally published in 1930, it was inscribed to the young Tony West upon his entrance to the school. Many historical details of this article come from that booklet.
My mother-in-law earlier last year had reconnected with Roger Bradshaw, the former schoolmate of Tony West. An invitation was extended for Roger to spend Christmas with the West Family in Cambridgeshire. He joined our family for a traditional roasted lamb dinner Christmas Day. Understanding our interest in the ‘city with the same name as ours,’ he gave me his Old Albanian tie: a striped scarf of red, black, gold and blue.
A few days later the four of us agreed to journey down to Hertfordshire from Cambridgeshire, just over an hours drive. Arriving in St. Albans by late morning, Roger drove us through the city center, towards the Abbey Cathedral. Passing through the Abbey Gateway, we found street side parking and began our journey on foot.
The most outstanding landmark of the city is the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban. Directly adjacent to the St. Albans School, the original foundation pre-dates A.D. 793.
Inside the spacious, yet nearly empty cathedral we were dwarfed by its majesty and marveled at the complex architecture. The nave seemed to extend endlessly, and is in fact, one of the longest in Europe. The statues, paintings, giant stained glass windows and ornate ceilings depict many scenes of beauty and suffering; including the martyrdom of St. Alban.
Many of Roger Bradshaw’s fondest memories revolve around the cathedral.
“The one that comes to mind is when the whole school walked over to the Abbey on Mondays and Thursdays, and as we entered the main door we would be enveloped in loud music, some fugue or other, coming down the aisle from the massive organ,” he said as we walked through the Nave.
Toward the back of the cathedral lies the Lady Chapel and the Shrine of St. Alban. The Abbey holds two medieval shrine pedestals. Near the shrine, a portion of the flooring is replaced by glass, and peering down below a private crypt is visible. The tomb holds Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, brother of King Henry V who died in 1447.
Olde & new
Exiting the cathedral we started down the footpath along Holywell Hill towards the oldest pub in England “Ye Olde Fighting Cocks.” Cold and hungry we arrived before the pub opened their door for lunch, giving us a few minutes to explore Abbey Mill Lane.
Inside the pub, the inglenook fireplace was host for a warming blaze, with an original bread oven alongside. Fish and chips; bangers and mash; pints of ale and bitter and stories of days gone by filled our minds and bellies. Beyond our table was a den that held five or six tables, an area where the cockerels were known to have had their fights long ago.
After lunch we paraded the perimeter of the St. Albans School gates, Roger Bradshaw posed for photos outside his Alma Mater. “It is an interesting experience to imagine your father a ‘school boy’ and involved in those activities that you personally associate with school boyhood,” Chris said as he passed by the school gates.
Continuing around the bend to the High Street, we reached the clock tower in the Market Place. To our disappointment the tower no longer allowed tourists inside. It used to house a shop. Hustling up the French Row, an area of shops and eateries, we turned to see the flag of St. George rustling above the Abbey Tower. It was Saturday and the market was underway, people filled the sidewalks as the post-Christmas sales were in full swing.
Descending the walk behind the St. Albans Abbey Cathedral, the amazing stained glass windows are in full view for any passerby. We strolled under the canopy of a Cedar of Lebanon tree, which has been standing tall since 1803. “There’s a funny feeling of belonging in the streets, the school, the Abbey, The Fighting Cocks. Even the old sweet shop that has changed out of all recognition, no longer selling sweets, still seems to be here,” said Roger pointing out the familiar and the new.
Nearing the banks of the River Ver, the heavy clouds began to drop rain. Chilled and wet we decided our visit had come to an end. A quick drive past the Roman settlement of Verulamium as we exited town, the flag of St. George remained visible atop the Abbey Tower in the distance.
— — —
Editor’s note: The Messenger, with Sarah West’s help, plans future stories about St. Albans’ namesake in England.