The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, Hertfordshire, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, Hertfordshire, UK

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Set in the historic city of St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK, formerly the Roman town of Verulamium/Verulanium, and from whose ruins much of the original stone was taken, St Albans Cathedral sits majestically near the top of Holywell Hill and is visible on a clear day for miles around.

The present building was started in 1077, but is set on the site of a much older church. In the intervening centuries it has had its ups and downs, including a period when it became in parts almost derelict. It's had its benefactors, though - including Grimthorpe who partially rebuilt the Abbey in a completely different style. The result is a glorious hotch-potch of Norman, Gothic and Victorian architecture. Added to this there is a fine new Chapter House, an excellent example of 20th Century ecclesiastical architecture.

The Abbey contains many fine works of art, including brasses of Thomas de la Mare, former Abbot, and of course the Shrine of St Alban, Britain's first Christian martyr. It is also the last resting place of Lord (Robert) Runcie, former Bishop of St Albans and latterly Archbishop of Canterbury. Other ecclesiastical residents in recent years have included Canon Eric James, honorary director of Christian Action and a former Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen; Colin Slee, now Dean of Southwark; and Sally Booth-Clibborn, a descendant of General Booth, who was the Dean's Administrator for many years.

However, the history is only a small part of it. The Abbey also acts as a social and musical centre, a venue for concerts for the International Organ Festival and the home of a choir whose past choirmasters include Stephen Darlington, Peter Hurford (arguably the world's best player of Bach on the organ) and now Barry Rose.

It is also attached to St Albans School, which can trace its roots back to a foundation in 948 AD which must surely make it one of the oldest surviving schools in the world. Famous alumni include Stephen Hawking, the physicist.

The bells of St Albans are also justly famous, one of them having been originally cast in 1290, but most of them being from the 17th Century. In 1765, a carillon1 was endowed by the first Earl Spencer, and this is still in the bell tower although it is now awaiting restoration. It may have worked as little as ten or 15 years ago, as the present electrically-driven carillon only plays the Westminster chimes on the quarter-hour. Some who lived in the 1980s nearby distinctly remember a much fuller chime on the hour.

The cathedral is reputed to have the longest nave in Britain, and it is certainly an impressively long building stretching 1/6 mile from end to end. The scale of the building reflects the historical importance of the town as a trading point; at one time the city was the first major stop going north from London. Until comparatively recently, St Albans was home to the busiest road junction in Britain, the meeting place of the A1, A5 and A6, and was the original starting point of the M1 (this stretch is now the M10).

To relax after a visit to the abbey you can visit one of the dozens of fine pubs within walking distance. Allegedly, in the Farriers' Arms, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was founded.

1'A set of bells sounded from a keyboard or by an automatic mechanism' - Concise Oxford Dictionary.

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