It’s a warm sunlit afternoon; we sit on the brick wall under the ancient clock tower, relaxing and taking in the fresh air and scenery; after the long winter I feel as if I need to sit outside as much as possible and soak up the sun.
My daughter bites into a hot cross bun as I enjoy a cappuccino. I can hear a group of visitors chatting in Spanish and realize that St Albans is increasingly becoming more of a tourist destination. The market is in full swing and the steamy paella smoke drifts through the air.
People linger sitting under the tree, the curved wooden benches giving the intimate feel of a small market square as the busker entertains us with his guitar riff while playing “Here comes the sun.”
St Albans clock Tower, and a significant local landmark, built some time between 1403 and 1412, is still in use after six hundred years. It remains the only medieval town belfry in England. An expression of civic power, the ringing of the curfew bell every evening was a summons to the local merchants to close their shops for the day empowering them to sound their own hours rather than those decided by the peel of the Abbey bells.
Grade I listed, it is about 64ft high and has five floors. At weekends you can brave the very narrow staircase and climb up as many as 93 steps spiraling up to the top and leading to a fantastic 360 degree view of St Albans and the surrounding countryside.
The tower contains two bells, the larger Gabriel bell dating from the 14th century, dedicated to the Archangel with the Latin inscription “I have the name Gabriel sent from heaven”; and the Market bell from the 18th century intended as an alarm for fires.
It was built close to the site of the Eleanor cross as indicated in the plaque above us. Twelve Eleanor crosses were constructed throughout eastern England under the orders of King Edward I between 1290 and 1294 in memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile. The site of each cross marks the nightly resting place of Eleanor’s funeral procession.
When we first came to St Albans on a day trip all those years ago I was pretty unaware of the city’s history, but was immediately drawn to its charm; the cobble streets, Tudor buildings, clean air and sense of peace and within a matter of months we had moved here.
Despite it’s huge historical significance, this city is in forward motion, with Britain’s First Saint Project in the pipeline at the cathedral, and the new state of the art museum opening within the next few months; we locals might soon find ourselves welcoming even more guests from near and far. I think it’s time we all learned another language or two, perhaps Spanish, or maybe even some Mandarin!