Sunday, 22 May 2011

Afternoon in St Albans, Hertfordshire

*** update 12/11/12

3 November 2012

It was a bright Saturday and with good light we decided to make an afternoon trip to St Albans, check out the market, have lunch and take a few photographs.  I was looking for a straw hat, I’d been lucky in St Albans before.  Though the hat stall only had winter stock, there was a book sale so we didn’t leave the market empty-handed.  Over the years I’ve been several times to the Little Marrakech restaurant at 31 Market Place.  It’s on the right hand side going towards the Abbey (downhill).  A two-course lunch is only £8.95 (drinks extra), the service is good and the food has always been delicious.  We passed by the clock tower (don’t ask for the time) and a photograph of the said tower appears below:

 The Clock Tower
St Albans

We then went to the St Albans Abbey and with much of the foliage having disappeared from the trees, there were some nice shots of the abbey in the mid afternoon sunshine from the south-west.

View of the abbey from the south-west
November 2012

View of the abbey from the west
November 2012
After a wander round the abbey, we had coffee and cake at the refectory.  This is a very pleasant place to sit and relax.  There are 2 gift shops nearby with a lot of Christmas merchandise.  I was interested in the St Albans salter, a reproduction of which is available in one of the displays. 

We were just in time for Choral Evensong.  This lasted about 40 minutes with a visiting choir.  It’s only the second time I’ve ever gone to a choral evensong, the first being in Coventry Cathedral in 1969.  I was very unsure of the ropes, but sitting facing the rose window, the sound was very good and much better than is usually heard on the broadcast of choral evensong on Radio 3. It may be that the broadcasts are made from a relatively filled abbey or cathedral, but from where I was sitting there were very few in the congregation. 

 The Rose Window in the north transept
St Albans Abbey
November 2012

It being the Office before a Feast day (the abbey was celebrating a hybrid All Saints/All Souls the next day) there had been a procession and on catechising some friends, it appeared that the dean of the abbey was dressed in a cope and there would have been incense as all the altars were being censed.  This, in retrospect, would explain some metallic noises as the clergy disappeared from my view for a few minutes.  It was an interesting experience.

St Alban’s Abbey has a lot of attractions for a visitor and is very relaxed with helpful staff.

Travel information:  Day return (round trip) with a disability discount is £4.90.  Companions will get a third off their ticket costs.

*** end of update

Now and again it’s a good idea get out of London, especially if the weather is good and the sky is not overcast.  My vision varies from the ophthalmic between 2 and 3 fingers.  This is how it is defined in what passes for an eye test.  This is a standard definition for disability living allowance (DLA) purposes.  Putting it simply, this means I can’t read at all – not even with the aid of a magnifying glass – and so large print is also of no use, or Braille, as I lost my sight 10 years ago.  What I can see depends on how overcast the sky is and believe it or not the level of lighting in some buildings.

One town to the north of London that I know quite well is St Albans.  I have been there frequently before I lost my sight and since, even on my own.  The town is relatively easy to navigate and has many good restaurants, shops and sights to visit.  It was one of those “let’s go somewhere” days, so on Thursday I went with a friend who is sighted and we got the train to St Albans.  The town centre is a longish walk up a hill from the railway station and you will need to ask for help when you get off the train.  Make sure it stops at St Albans – some of the railway companies terminate services at St Albans, but you could find yourself ending up in Bedford or even further north. 

St Albans Cathedral is well-worth a visit and having climbed to the town centre, you have to then go downhill to the abbey or cathedral.  It’s well-worth going with friends, as there are many interesting features in the cathedral itself.  One of my friends usually insists that I can distinguish between the different types of architectural features and materials of construction in buildings old and new.  To some extent, this friend has taken me on a touch tour outside the buildings with the full-scale example and not just a tactile model inside.  Both these methods make some architectural topics accessible for blind people (incidentally, the same friend insists that I compare and contrast the quality of concrete in some modern developments.) 

After that, a nice lunch at the Cock Inn where I had a pickled mackerel starter followed by a salmon risotto.  Incidentally, I was asked if a spoon would be useful in handling the risotto.  This has echoes of a church asking me if large print would be helpful.  So top marks to the kind waiter.  In fact, the risotto was so well formed I could manage with a knife and fork, though anyone who knows me will know that I use my fingers quite a lot in handling food.

We then went on to the Museum of St Albans* in Hatfield St.  I’ve been there before, when they had an exhibition of Stanley Kubrick memorabilia and even an Oscar on display.  The exhibition made one feel like being on the set of a Kubrick movie, with sound, lights etc.  I remarked how much I enjoyed this to the staff at the museum, and they said that their current exhibition was a photograph collection about St Albans itself, but there was a fairly short film which I might find useful.  The film was, as it summed up the history of St Albans from Roman times through the pilgrimage, focussing on the shirne of St Albans, the power of the Abbey, the independence of the town, the dissolution of the monastery and the rise of industry and commerce and the railway. 

What happened next was a pleasant surprise when one of the staff was chatting to me about an installation by a local artist called Aviva was being installed and if I would like to have a preview.  This was a real delight and being taken round the installation while it was being done and meeting the artist herself proves that this museum and Aviva were not phased by a blind man walking off the street.  Thanks very much to the staff at the Museum of St Albans and remember this might have been their first review!  It certainly gets 5 stars.

Later on, we worked our way back to the Abbey, which has a free admission policy, though you are encouraged to leave a donation.  I think this is a better idea than having an admission charge, as it means that people like me can drop in to experience some part of the cathedral without having to go through everything in one visit. 

St Albans is worth many a visit.  If you go on a Saturday, there is a large market and there are shopping areas tucked away from the main streets.  I haven’t been to the  Verulamium, though I did try to find it on my own but unlike Theseus in the Labyrinth, I didn’t have kind Ariadne to hand out the thread to retrace my steps.  I have a good idea where it is and I will have to take a longer reel of cotton the next time.

One word of warning: there is a huge development programme taking place on this Thameslink railway line, with much station improvement and reconstruction.  You would be best to call one of the rail helplines or check one of the rail information sites.

The staff at St Pancras are excellent at guiding you at the appropriate point and will call ahead for help on any of the services operated from St Pancras International.  The underground station staff are also available and the people at the gate will direct you or arrange to take you from station to station and to the onward connection. 

On a social note, I am making a few friends on Twitter and have started commenting within some forums.  I am finding some of the new technology bewildering, but have struck up a few conversations with some blind people and those in organisations.  One tweet that has impressed me is that of the journalist David Aaronovitch, who has been having some eye operations and has discussed them on Twitter.  David tweeted today:

Getting very fed up with being partially sighted. Makes me feel tetchy and vulnerable. Obvious point, but really have taken it for granted.

I think David sums up what it is like to have suffered sight loss.  I certainly hope he recovers.  For some others life is not so easy and we go through various phases of anger, self-pity and the usual why-me.  These, of course, don’t help but after a while you do realise that it is a sort of bereavement and, like a bereavement, you have to get over it.  It’s not very easy.  Some people can be very untactful, some extremely kind and willing to share their experience.  Such an example is my architecture friend, who rather than explain and wave hands will ‘insist’ on asking me to compare and contrast lumps of masonry and some carved features.  So if you see me pontificating with the aid of the whitestick on rag stone vs. concrete, you’ll know!

*The Museum of St Albans
Hatfield Road

St Albans