I love London, obviously, but at times it can all get a bit too much! It's busy, noisy and polluted, plus for international visitors all of its pros can also be cons - as a vast, cosmopolitan sprawl it's actually not very respresentative of most of the country, and for those wanting to immerse themselves in an authentic and quintessentially English experience this is not really the place to achieve it! However, it's no problem as the capital can be effectively used as a launching pad to reach a wealth of stunning destinations easily explorable on a daytrip or weekend away!
Introducing: St Albans - the best historic town you've never heard of!
Where is it?
About 30 mins train ride north of central London in the county of Hertfordshire.
St Albans is an absolute gem! History buffs are treated to both Roman and Tudor ruins as well as the impressive central cathedral - one of the largest in Europe. There's also culture aplenty with many theatres around town holding regular concerts and productions.
St Albans presents us with a happy blend of both typical rural and townie English life. It boasts a bustling town centre full of traditional English pubs alongside more modern, international eateries, and a lively market which has been around since the 9th century! And all of this is just a short stroll from rolling fields full of delightfully, inquisitive sheep and the joyful trickle of the River Ver, a prime spot for catching a glimpse of the illusive kingfisher!
St Albans Cathedral
Built on the grave of Alban, the first British martyr of christianity, the cathedral has been a place of pilgrimage for over 1700 years! The building itself is a must see if you visit the town - extremely impressive, and bears evidence of Saxon, Norman, Medieval, Victorian and modern architectural additions and modifications. You will also witness paintings of oustanding national importance, which were painted in the 13th century and only rediscovered in 1862. Tip: definitely take a free guided tour to give yourself some historical context for this amazing building.
If you want a leisurely stroll around some absolutely stunning Tudor ruins away from the gawking crowds then I can't recommend Sopwell Nunnery enough! The shell that is seen today isn't actually that of the Benedictine Abbey from which it take its name at all - it's actually the ruins of Lee Hall, named after Sir Richard Lee - a commander of Henry VIII, who tore down the original building during the dissolution of the monastries.
I couldn't believe that not only was such an incredible piece of history so easily accessible, it's just there, plonked between some allotments and a housing estate, but we had full run of the place to ourselves - save for the odd, token dog-walker! Incredible!
Nature bonus: we managed to spot a kingfisher at the River Ver Trail a few yards from this site!
Roman Theatre & Walls
The city of Verulamium was established at the site of modern day St Albans, and was the second largest town of Roman Britain. Traces of this period are still visible today; the ruined walls and theatre are definitely worth a look! You'll need to pay to explore the theatre, but a discount is possible if you combine your ticket with a visit to the Verulamium museum - another must see!
The walls are found within the beautifully maintained Verulamium Park just west of the town centre.
The place in St Albans to learn about the town's Roman history - you'll discover a wealth of artifacts displayed alongside easily digestible information and leave feeling enriched by all that Romany cultural goodness! Plus the chance to create your own mosaic!
Tea at Abigail's
Don't let all of that dashing about between historic sites prevent you from enjoying a mid morning or late afternoon repose at Abigail's Tea Room. This cosy little traditional cafe is situated at the chic Victorian arcade just of the High Street, and has friendly staff, and a snuggly atmoshpere.
A great little historic town with much to offer - easily explorable within a day and just a stones throw away from central London!
All opinions are my own.