On the Hertfordshire Way

26 03 2006

Almost the entire day I have been on the Hertfordshire Way which has for its logo the face of a stag with horns. This is only appropriate because the county itself takes its name from the “hart”. I walked along the River Lea from Harpenden to Wheathampstead, then turned south to St Albans. After having lunch at St Albans and spending considerable time in its ancient cathedral I returned to Harpenden westwards and northwards via Redbourn.

The day had started after a night of rain. The freshness that comes with sunshine after rain was felt. Most of the morning was bright and warm. At about noon the clouds gathered. The wind picked up and kept its presence for a couple of hours. For the rest of the day, it rained. Thus, all elements of typical British weather have been justly represented today.

What a beautiful country is Hertfordshire! This is not a county of livestock and grazing. Most of the land is arable. Woods are scattered and plenty. Rolling hills and pleasant walks along the valleys are the highlights. On the Hertfordshire Way these hills are seen from various perspectives. Often one sees them in the distance. Often one feels the gentle dips and rises of the land while walking. Sometimes the graceful curves of the hills are in immediate proximity, one curve hiding behind another, one curve inviting to discover another. The most striking aspect of the day was the ceaseless calls of birds. The whole countryside was singing.

There is something undeniably and irresistibly enticing about a path that stretches, rolls and winds on the hills. The path is clear. Obstacles are few, opportunities plenty and ripe. Standing at the start of such a path the urge is immediate. The path has formed itself with a purpose. I have arrived here only to discover the same purpose. The path vanishes beyond the horizon of open hills with few trees. There where the views are still unseen and unknown, perhaps lies my destination or the start of a new journey.

Just outside Wheathampstead is an impressive ditch about 10 meters deep and much wider, filled with trees and plants. This was once the primitive defence of early Britons against the invading Romans. A plaque at the north end of this ditch reads:

IN 54 B.C.

Thus I walked the path of Julius Caesar but in peace, not in war. The question remains if Julius Caesar himself did in fact come this far. Locals, proud of their place and anxious to fame, are quick to claim the benefit of any doubt associated with their uncertain history.

St Albans is an ancient town that takes its name after the first Christian martyr of Britain. There is something significant in this name. Many great cathedrals of this land take their names from the town. Such is the case with Exeter, Wells, Salisbury, Canterbury, Worcester, to name a few. These towns may have carried that name in association with the surrounding landscape, such as a river, a hill or a plain. It is the pursuit of historians to figure out how these names came to be, whether it is the landscape that gave the town its name or vice versa. For St Albans there is no doubt of such a history. The town and the cathedral both take their name from the saint.

The Hertfordshire Way cuts right across St Albans. Here the path acquires a new interest. It is a natural and peaceful enclave winding its way through an urban labyrinth. Most of this is a thin strip of woodland, what they call a “wick”. One memorable joy here was witness a robin and a blackbird drinking from a pool four feet from me, aware but unmindful of my presence. On such small things do great joys depend.

There are three things striking about the Cathedral. First is its unique stonework of flint, mortar and brick. Much of this has been salvaged material from Verulamium, a Roman town lying west of St Albans. Second is the length of the nave. They claim it is the longest in the country. I have heard a similar claim about Winchester. No matter who is right the magnificence of both cathedrals will survive as truth. Third is the impressive west facade that reminds one of the Natural History Museum in London. Both are products of Victorian architecture. On the inside still more surprises await. The paintings on the pillars of the nave have lost their colour but not their theme, meaning and significance. The nave is a mix of Norman, Early English and Decorated Gothic styles. In 1323 five arches on the south side of the nave collapsed. Faced with a choice, they opted for the latest style of architecture, the Decorated Gothic that now faces the Norman style on the north side. I wonder, if the same pillars were to collapse today (God forbid they should), what would be our decision – the Norman style to bring back the original symmetry or the Decorated Gothic by which many do remember that part of the nave. It may well be a concrete structure on the inside but disguised on the outside to resemble one of these styles. It certainly will not be made of flint stones and mortar finished with an application of plaster strengthened with horse hair. Yes, one can still see horse hair on some of the Norman pillars. The watching chamber that overlooks the shrine of St Albans was used to watch over visitors and keep order in the shrine. It has carved reliefs of everyday scenes of life. From the 20th century we have the stained-glass on the west window, a memorial to the martyrs of the Great War. The Rose Window in the north transept was installed in 1989 and reaffirms the suitability of modern Christian art in an ancient setting. The painted wooden ceilings tell their own stories. In London there is a pub called “Lamb and Flag”. I have seen it in other places as well. Today I understand the significance of this emblem which is clearly seen on one of the painted ceilings. It signifies St John the Baptist. So it is that Christian images that have been widely known to the common people have been used by country pubs and wayside inns of the past.

All these I learnt not by my limited intelligence but by the patience and knowledge of one of the cathedral volunteers. He offered a guided tour exclusively for me. This is the greatness of humble folks who work in the service of God. They work without expectation of reward. They serve with dedication and interest. With every act they confirm the glory of God without seeking self-glorification.




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