Cycling home from St Albans

October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I caught the train as far north as an Oyster card takes you*, and then cycled to St Albans. I associated the town with two things: an atmosphere of extreme Englishness, autumn leaves and crumpets and hockey games; and a bloody battle involving Boadicea. Both things, it turned out, are true. It is pretty and British, with an expensive bakery that will give you buttered toast but only if you plead. And in AD 60 or 61 it was destroyed completely in the last victory for the Iceni before they were re-crushed by the Romans.

It has a Cathedral – something I didn’t know. In the grounds there were wide strips of sunlight and bunches of flowers that had been blown around by a hard-edged wind. Along a path down the side of the building a woman pushed a baby in a pram. Another child, about four years old, ran ahead, over the grass. The woman called her back:

“Why?”
“Because that’s where dead people are lying. And you don’t want to walk on dead people.”
(I think it was because of the mud, really).

Inside, there was no avoiding walking on the dead. The floor is made up of slabs with “Here lieth…” carved at various times and in various states of abrasion. Here lieth – in the vaults beneath the building, or in a grave on that spot. Or literally just under the stone; it is levered up and the body slipped under, then the weight of the slab presses it into the dust. Maybe needs a couple of jumps to get it flush again.

In other places the floor is tiled, the red squares worn in their centres and ridged up towards the edges and the mortar, like the floor is made of soft cloth rather than stone. Wearing cycling cleats, my footsteps clinked and grated; like spurs would have done, I imagine. (Angela Carter also noticed the similarities between knights and cyclists).

Always a sucker for history up to the Wars of the Roses, and beyond, I clinked along thinking of Cadfael and Wolf Hall, and finding a man lying and carved in marble, of The Bishop Orders His Tomb by Browning.

And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s-work

There were candles, burning and dying. Flowers. A list of names on the wall in copperplate that is going to come into its own if I ever have a son: Willegod, Eadric, Wulsig, Wulnoth, Eadfrith, Wulsin, Alfric, Ealdred, Eadmer, Alfric II, Leofric, Leofstan, Egrid, Fritheric.

On sheets of A4, the printed story of Alban: beheaded in the third century for proclaiming his Christian faith and thereby becoming the first English martyr (writing that I think of 1066 and All That, which my father read to me; both of us often collapsed in laughter and unable to go on).

Legend tells us that on the hill-top a spring of water miraculously appeared to give the martyr a drink; also that moved by his witness the original executioner refused to carry out the deed, and that after his replacement had killed Alban, the executioners (sic) eyes dropped out.

On the other side of the sheet, this opening gambit:

You may think this building is beautiful. You may appreciate its history, art and architecture…But if you don’t understand what’s at the heart of it all, you’ve missed the point.

The church was beautiful though, as I left it, treading inevitably on the dead.

Candle smoke

After coffee and the miracle of toast, I set out to cycle back home. It’s about 20 miles, and as I headed down the hill out of St Albans it began to rain, hard and cold, which seemed for some reason not to matter. I knew the route wouldn’t be pretty; but pleasantness was outweighed by purpose – having somewhere to get to, which can be satisfying just in itself.

The route passed through Radlett, Elstree, over the A1. Then Hendon, which has an incredible view, Mill Hill, Finchley, where my phone died. Mapless, I found my way to the North Circular and across it, turned east, and ended up on The Bishop’s Avenue. The houses, each one worth millions, are extraordinarily awful. Massive, hunkered down on stone thighs, hunched stone shoulders, guarded eyes.

You may think these buildings are ugly, I thought. But if you don’t understand what’s at the heart of it all, you’ve missed the point.

And then the Heath, the flying last downhill. A sky the colour of oyster shells. The last long evening, I realised, before the clocks changed. Home to – I only made the connection when I arrived – St Albans Road; full circle

Marble hands

* NOTE: You cannot get to St Albans with an Oyster card. I tried, had an argument with a conductor who wanted to fine me, went back two stops. You can get to Elstree and Borehamwood with an Oyster card.

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