Part of our day-trips from London series.
Did you know that there's an ancient and beautiful city just 18 minutes from St Pancras? St Albans is the closest city to London, and has enough historic buildings to make its big neighbour jealous.
Better yet, the city just got a spectacular new museum based around an old courthouse, and free to explore. What better excuse to head out to nearest Hertfordshire to spend a day in the historic town.
1. About that new museum...
It's called St Albans Museum + Gallery and it's a triumph (with caveats, which we shall come to). The old courthouse building in the central market has undergone a complete makeover. Explore at your leisure, following your nose and finding a new surprise round every corner.
The centrepiece is the courtroom itself. The scene of thousands of trials is transformed into St Albans' most unusual cafe with plush seats and free wifi. It's strange, but it works.
A secret staircase leads down from the defendant's dock into the holding cells. Some contain flushable toilets. We can't think of anywhere else you can take a dump in a prison cell without serving a custodial sentence.
Most of the museum and gallery space is given over to temporary exhibitions. On our visit, these included a history of printing in St Albans, a photographic exhibition on squatting and art installations inspired by Victorian balls.
All very interesting in their own way, and it's good to know that we'll see something different every time we visit. However, the permanent displays felt a bit squeezed out. This is a city crammed with history. A few curiosity cabinets and a single video display in what is essentially a corridor doesn't do it justice.
Overall, though, St Albans Museum + Gallery is an excellent addition to the town centre, and worth a visit alone. While you're in the city, here are a half-dozen other things to see, all of them rather special.
2. Verulamium Park
St Albans' largest open space would give the Royal Parks a run for their money. It has everything. Boating lake, ancient remains (see below), playground, splash park, cafe, even an outdoor gym in the shape of the London 2012 logo. It's big, too. From the farthest corners, the cathedral looks like it's in another town.
3. Roman history
The Romans founded the city as Verulamium — adapting the pre-existing name of the local tribe. Their handiwork is not hard to find, particularly around the park.
Lengthy sections of Roman wall still loom along the southern border, while impressive mosaics — bigger than anything from London — sit inside a specially constructed viewing centre in the middle of the park. Verulamium Museum offers a more detailed picture of the Roman city. Be sure to trek just a little further out of town to visit the Roman theatre remains, too (small entrance fee).
4. Ancient cathedral
St Albans Cathedral is a bit special. From the outside, it's not particularly magnificent, huge or ornate when compared with the great churches of the wider country, but it does have a unique boast. This is the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in the country.
England's very first saint (guess who) lived and died here. Alban was an early Christian martyred by the Romans for refusing to renounce the outlawed religion. His tomb still lies within the cathedral. The building itself is somewhat of a mongrel, constructed from a mix of materials that includes Roman stones from the walls.
5. Views from the clock tower
St Albans also boasts the oldest surviving clock tower in the country that isn't part of a church or other ecclesiastical building. It was built in the opening years of the 15th century, before anyone had heard of Henry VIII or William Shakespeare. It can be climbed at weekends (though not in winter) for a small fee.
6. Historic pubs
Lots of English towns have charming ye olde pubs. Lots of English towns have pubs that serve a wide range of craft ales. Rarely do the two attractions combine. But this is St Albans, founding city of CAMRA and home to the real-ale organisation. At least half a dozen pubs are older than anything you'll find in London, and nearly all have an adventurous selection of ales to try.
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks near Verulamium Park is perhaps the most famous. It's one of those places that claims to be the oldest pub in England (and, naturally, has secret tunnels to the cathedral). The evidence is a little shaky, but there's no disputing the exceptional choice of beer — eight draught pumps, none of them dispensing Pride, Doom Bar or any other over-familiar brand.
Also impressive is The Goat on Sopwell Lane with its sprawl of ancient rooms and a sizeable beer garden. Carry on down Sopwell Lane for Britain's easiest pub crawl. At least three other excellent pubs are reached in a stretch you could comfortably hop backwards.
7. Plenty of 'Secret St Albans' corners
It's impossible to distill a whole, historic city into one article. That's why you need to go explore it for yourself. While you're investigating the many nooks, alleys and half-timbered buildings, look out for some of the following...
With thanks to Rob Smith of Footprints of London, who runs occasional tours of St Albans, for the pub crawl.