Another Bank Holiday Weekend, another Heritage Drive. I don’t know if it’s the increase in traffic levels with the roads getting more and more crowded, or my energy levels dropping as I approach my 60′s, but the thoughts of a day’s drive to say, Somerset or Gloucestershire are no longer the attractions they once were. And so, for this Bank Holiday we stayed relatively close to home, but still had a full day of heritage to enjoy!
On the M1, turning off for Hemel Hempstead at Junction 8 we passed the Buncefield Oil Depot (home of a horrendous fire some years ago) and made our way toward Redbourn, and the first stop of the day at The Aubreys (OS Grid Rref TL949112).
Panorama of the Aubreys interior
Nestled between a low hotel (site of an old Manor) and the noise of the M1, this ‘plateau fort’ is unusually situated with high ground all around. The well defined double ramparts are intact for a large proportion of the circumference, if a little ‘fortified’ by more recent scrap in places.
Is this a Heritage Crime? The ramparts ‘fortified’ by industrial tyres.
To be perfectly honest, there’s not a great deal to see here, though scrabbling amongst the hotel detritus it’s just possible to make out a causeway entrance to the NW. There is much evidence here of animal settlement, badger setts and foxholes abound – as well as material remains of the aluminium-based ‘Fosterian’ culture for future archaeologists to mull over, the Aubreys has not yet been subject to any excavation as far as I can determine. But nearer the hotel there is plenty of colour at the moment from the bluebells growing among the trees.
And so we left the hotel behind and skirting round the village of Redbourn, headed toward Harpenden, passing the spookily-named Rothamsted Experimental Station, which has the remains of a Roman Temple in the grounds. This, I suspect, is off limits to the public and I didn’t try to gain entry. Instead, we continued across to Wheathampstead, the Iron Age capital of the area, nestled pleasantly on the River Lea. There are several good heritage themed walks around the village (heritage walks are the theme of an upcoming Journal Post), covering many different time periods. Some of the local characters from history are celebrated on a temporary building site hoarding.
Cassivellaunus can just be seen at far left, brandishing his sword.
The oldest aspect of the town is to the east of the current settlement, marked on OS maps as ‘Belgic Oppidum‘ (OS Grid Ref TL185133), the site of two defensive earthworks known as the Devils Dyke and the Slad. This is supposedly where Cassivellaunus led a defense of the Britons against Julius Caesar. Whether this is true is open to debate, but there is no doubt that this was an area of some importance in the early Iron Age.
The ditch and ramparts of the Devil’s Dyke are still quite formidable, and even assuming some ‘infill’ over the years, the scale of the original, when topped off with a wall of timbers can only be imagined.
Following the lane down past the Dyke, and joining the main road south and west into St Albans past Nomansland Common (site of the exploits of a lady highwayman!), we continued into the cathedral city.
At St Albans, a possible continuation of the Devil’s Dyke is another long earthwork, known as Beech Bottom Dyke. But we didn’t stop there this time, as Verulamium awaited us.
Now a large municipal park, the town of Verulamium, forerunner of the modern town of St Albans can still be made out via the low bumps and humps remaining from excavations by the Wheelers in the 1930′s and again by Frere some 25 years later. Many of the finds from those excavations, including some spectaular large mosaics are on show in the Verulamium Museum (£5 adult entrance for non-locals) at the north end of the park, whilst a large mosaic hypocaust is preserved in situ in it’s own (free entry) building in the park.
Elsewhere, some fragments of the Fosse – a later defensive earthwork – and the original walls remain. Watling Street ran through the centre of the town, which is famous of course as being one of the targets of Boudicca’s campaign against the Romans. Across the main road to the north is another site, the Roman Theatre (separate entrance fee required), which we didn’t visit this time round.
A section of Roman Wall, alongside the River Ver.
Of course, Verulamium didn’t just pop into being when the Romans arrived in Britain, as a high status Iron Age burial discovered in 1992 just NE of the Roman town in Folly Lane attests. This has been an important and strategic area for a very long time.
Our final stop was at St Stephen’s church just south of the town, on Watling Street, to take a quick look at the marker stone in the churchyard. This could be a prehistoric standing stone, but it is much more likely to have been a way-marker, or boundary stone set much later. It’s origins, as they say, are lost in the mists of time.
And so, with four major sites visited, our journey was complete and we set off back for home.
So, where did you go this Bank Holiday weekend? Why not write a short article for the Journal and tell us about your own travels?
All photos copyright Alan S. All rights reserved.