St Alban was Britain’s first Christian martyr. The story of how he met his end is frankly too lengthy, outlandish and gory to go into here, but it involves severed heads rolling down hills and the eyes of roman centurions falling out. The town that bears his name sees little such affray now one would hope, although there were a couple of cop cars and an ambulance outside O Neill’s and the Slug And Lettuce on the night I was there.
A journey south through England, via the route I’ve taken at least, will tend to be one of increasing prosperity and St Albans is a comfortable town in the heart of comfortable shires or at least it looks that way if you’ve walked from Jarrow. And perhaps it did then in 1936 although the enormous centrifugal pull of London, it’s money, privilege and real estate, was less powerful then. I spent some time in these lush, rich counties in an earlier book of mine on Middle England. The feeling that I’ve gone over some of this ground before literally and metaphorically,, the long uneventful miles – with all respect to Harpenden – and the feeling that the end is in sight hurries me along the A road to St Albans without much detaining me again on the 10 miles of road and path from Luton
St Albans bustles about its Saturday business as I emerge onto the crowded main drag. It’s another mild morning in middle England, very much more pleasant than the chilly, heavy rain that greeted the marchers eighty years before. In one respect though, St Albans had a finer face to show them. They were met by the Mayor and Chief Constable on the steps of the grand white town hall. When I get there I find a solitary man in his 60s in the doorway of what looks to be an abandoned building with the words Merchant Tea And Coffee Company above the disused entrance.“Is this…was this… the town hall?”
“I reckon so” he says in an accent forged many miles north of St Albans “but they’ve ‘ad for’t close it darn cos it’s full of asbestos” (I woundn’t normally render speech phonetically, but it was very striking in this context). It turned out he and his wife come down to watch the big NFL game at Wembley every year staying somewhere on the outskirts of the capital. “Last year it was Hemel Hempstead. This year we’re in Tring” he says morosely, suggesting he has found Tring wanting in some regard
The cathedral does not disappoint though it was surprisingly hard to find; a thing of splendour but somewhat hidden away from town in obscuring thickets of the everyday; cafes, pubs, delis. Prince Charles once opined that the clutter around St Paul’s was like a carbuncle on the face of a much loved friend. The street architecture of St Albans is not a carbuncle, but it is a fairly effective mask. Up a side street though and there it is, and yes it is glorious. The tourists flock around the cathedral in a genial babel of German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian. In a little basement room, a choir is rehearsing a lovely version of Amazing Grace. Inside a clearly supremely gifted organist is playing flashy toccata (my notes read ‘this dude can play’) and the effect is cumulatively amazing. Of course, there will be some who say that this tremendous edifice is built on nothing but fairy stories and superstition. But, and I speak here as an agnostic, the mischievous part of me thinks that might make it all the more magnificent. Here are layered centuries upon on centuries of history, human stories, politics, hubris. You don’t need to believe in God to understand the power of the story here since it was Verulameum. And, in a nice detail for me, the earliest and best account of Alban’s life comes from that great chronicler the venerable Bede, who lived and worked in Jarrow.
If you’re name is Victoria (which if you’ve read my book Hope And Glory, you’ll know no-one in Britain was until Queen Victoria) you get a free prosecco every Friday at the Victoria pub. I amble past a Sustainable St Albans stall and avail myself some of the free Spicy Pumpkin soup, as the marchers would surely have done. (The idea is to encourage families to use the innards of their Halloween pumpkin rather than toss them in the bin). Taking in another of several posters I have seen this last week, I conclude that every amateur musical theatre group in Britain is currently putting on Sister Act. It’s also nice to see the St Albans still has one of those lovely traditional sewing machine and telescope shops
I don’t know if it’s the cold that’s been threatening to waylay me or long evenings of feeling tired in unfamiliar towns but by the time dusk falls in St Albans, I feel a little low. I’ve not really felt this so far, and there’s no particular reason to feel low in St Albans. It’s a lovely town although we are starting to get into that part of the country where the vertiginous house prices make you wonder how any ordinary working person can live here and give cause to reflect that around the time of the Jarrow march, only a quarter of the British population owned their own home. Whilst sometime this might have put them at mercy of unscrupulous landlords, it meant we didn’t have the uniquely toxic obsession with property we have today.
By the time I get to my little hotel room on Holywell Hill (down which St Alban’s had once rolled, causing the well to spring) the dark is coming on and I feel a bit weary and disoriented. I wonder how the Marchers felt at this stage. Was it still a great adventure? Or just cold and hard and tiring? They walked every inch of the way, unlike me, and unlike me they couldn’t text, tweet, call or e-mail. Harrumphers will say of course that that’s a good thing but I wouldn’t agree. Also I’ve often found that Twitter in particular is disliked by a certain kind of middle-aged man because it doesn’t necessarily reward the person who shouts the loudest at the bar. All I know is without it, my trip would have been harder and less rewarding, and the book would have been thinner, and less well-informed
I throw my pack in the corner of the room after the ritual hanging up of shirts in the shower, lie on the bed and stick Channel 4 news on. In the increasingly noxious and bizarre US presidential race, Michelle Obama has come out for Hilary Clinton and, in what’s being seen as a landmark case, the courts have decided that Uber drivers have employment rights. The tech has changed since 1936 but industrial relations remain a fractious issue in our world, I think as I recline.
I’m woken by a voice and a style of speaking I vaguely recognise. Something has been ‘funked up’ by the addition of red chillies whilst I learn that aduki beans are ‘groovier’ than baked and have less sugar. Coming to I realise foggily that a) I am in a budget hotel in St Albans b) it’s half nine and I’ve been asleep for two and half hours and c) Jamie Oliver is still on Channel 4 on Friday nights. I feel like the Poundland Rip Van Winkle.
A little while later, I am in a pub called The Horn, something of a famed local watering hole for music. The Bluetones and China Crisis are both here in coming weeks bit tonight it is the turn of Maxwell Hammer Smith who promise ‘harmony rock…Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, Queen’, a selection that in turn appeals and terrifies. I stuck around for the first twenty minutes of their set and the harmonies were indeed pretty special, promoting me to stay in the same room as the music for the entirety of Somebody To Love, something that I have never managed before.
No offence to the band but I needed a dram and a bed. Two more stages to go and then the whole long, strange trip would be over. St Albans most famous musical sons are, you may know, the Zombies, a fine band in themselves and whose singer Colin Blunstone, who once told me he’d learned his musical chops himself doing covers down at St Albans rugby club has made some of my favourite pastoral pop singles ever. This is one of them