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St Albans is a cathedral city in Hertfordshire, England, and the administrative center of the City and District of St Albans. It is located about 20 miles (32 km) north-northwest of central London, 8 miles (13 km) south-west of Welwyn Garden City, and 11 miles (18 km) south-southeast of Luton. St Albans was the first major town for travellers heading north on the old Roman road of Watling Street, and it became the Roman city of Verulamium. It is located within the Greater London Built-up Area and the London Commuter Belt. It is the fourth-most populous settlement in Hertfordshire, with a population of 82,146 people.
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The Iron Age
From around 20 BC until shortly after the Roman invasion of AD 43, there was an Iron Age settlement known as Verlamion, or Verlamio, near the current city, which was the center of Tasciovanus’ power and a major center of the Catuvellauni.
“Verlamion” is a Celtic word that means “settlement over or by the marsh.”
The town was located on Prae Hill, about 2 kilometers west of modern St Albans, and is now surrounded by the village of St Michael’s, Verulamium Park, and the Gorhambury Estate.
Despite the fact that excavations in 1996 yielded silver coins from the Roman Republic era dating from 90/80 BC. There was evidence of trade with the republic, as well as the existence of a settlement on the site 50 years before Julius Caesar attempted to invade Britain. Tasciovanus, however, is thought to have relocated the tribal capital to the site (around 25 to 5 BC). Cunobelinus may have built Beech Bottom Dyke, a defensive earthwork near the settlement with unknown significance.
The Roman city of Verulamium, the second-largest town in Roman Britain after Londinium, grew from an Iron Age settlement and was elevated to the rank of municipium around AD 50, granting its citizens “Latin Rights,” a lower level of citizenship than a colonia. It grew to be a significant town, drawing the attention of Boudica of the Iceni in 61, when Verulamium was sacked and burned on her orders. Excavations conducted prior to the museum’s new entrance in 1996–97 in the heart of the Roman town allowed archaeologists to date a black ash layer to 60–65 AD, confirming the Roman written record. It grew steadily, and by the early third century, it had grown to cover an area of about 125 acres (0.51 km2), hidden behind a deep ditch and wall. Verulamium had a forum, a basilica, and a theater, all of which were heavily damaged in two fires, one in 155 and the other in around 250. These were repaired and used into the fourth century. By the end of the fourth century, the theatre had fallen into disuse. One of the few extant Roman inscriptions in Britain can be found on the forum’s ruins (see Verulamium Forum inscription). Over the next 150 years, the town was rebuilt in stone rather than wood at least twice. Between 400 and 450 AD, the Roman occupation came to an end.
St Alban’s body was most likely buried outside the city walls in a Roman cemetery near the current cathedral. His hillside grave became a pilgrimage site. Recent excavations have revealed a basilica there, indicating that it is the oldest continuous site of Christian worship in the United Kingdom. Germanus of Auxerre visited the church in 429 and later promoted the St Alban cult.
A few traces of the Roman city remain visible, including parts of the city walls, a hypocaust – which is still in place beneath a mosaic floor – and the theatre, which is on land owned by the Earl of Verulam, as well as items in the museum. Further remains beneath nearby agricultural land have only had a few exploratory trenches, which were never fully excavated and were seriously threatened by deep ploughing, which was halted in 2005 after compensation was agreed upon. Deep ploughing had caused serious damage to buildings on the northern side of Old Watling Street, according to test trenches in 2003. Permission must be granted in order to investigate the full extent of the damage to Verulamium’s western half.
After the Romans left, the town became the center of the Anglo-Saxon Waeclingas tribe’s territory or regio.
St Albans Abbey and the surrounding Anglo-Saxon settlement were built on the hill outside the Roman city where St Alban was thought to be buried. Martin Biddle’s 1978 archaeological excavation failed to uncover Roman remains on the site of the medieval chapter house. As late as the eighth century, the Saxons of nearby St Albans were aware of their ancient neighbor, which they referred to as Verulamacstir or, in what H. R. Loyn refers to as “their own hybrid,” Vaeclingscstir, “the fortress of the followers of Wcla,” possibly a pocket of British-speakers remaining separate in an increasingly Saxonised area.
The medieval town grew on the hill to the east of Wclingacaester, where Ulsinus founded the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans in 793.
There is evidence that the original location was higher up the hill than the current structure, which was begun in 1077. St Albans Abbey was England’s most important medieval abbey. The scribe Matthew Vickers lived there, and it was here that the first draft of Magna Carta was drafted. Following the dissolution of the Benedictine abbey in 1539, it became a parish church before being elevated to the status of cathedral in 1877.
St Albans School was established in 948 AD. It is the only school in the English-speaking world to have educated a Pope, Matthew Paris (Adrian IV). It has been a public school since 1871 and occupies a site to the west of the Abbey, which includes the 14th-century Abbey Gateway. One of its structures was a hat factory, a nod to the city’s industrial past.
The Bishops of St Albans and Hertford’s palaces, as well as Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, the oldest pub in England, are located on Abbey Mill Lane, which connects the Abbey and the school.
From 1403 to 1412, Thomas Wolvey was commissioned to build a clock tower in the Market Place. It is England’s only surviving medieval town belfry. The original bell, named after Archangel Gabriel, has an F-natural sound and weighs one ton. Gabriel announced the Angelus at 4 a.m. and the curfew at 8 or 9 p.m. Until the twentieth century, the ground floor of the tower housed a shop. The rooms on the first and second floors were intended to be living spaces. A flight of spiral stairs connected the shop and the first floor. Another flight of 93 narrow steps rises the entire height of the tower, providing access to the living chamber, the clock, and the bell without disturbing the tenant of the shop.
Two Wars of the Roses battles took place in or near the town. The First Battle of St Albans took place on May 22, 1455, within the town, and the Second Battle of St Albans took place on February 17, 1461, just to the north.
Abbot Ulsinus established a street market on Wednesdays and Saturdays, which is still active.
It was granted a Royal Charter in 1553 and is now administered by St Albans District Council.
Prior to the twentieth century, St Albans was a rural market town, a Christian pilgrimage site, and the first coaching stop on the route to and from London, which explains the town’s abundance of old inns. St Albans in Victorian times was a small town with little industry. Its population grew at a slower rate than London’s, at 8–9% per decade between 1801 and 1861, compared to London’s 31 percent per decade growth during the same period. In 1858, the railway arrived. The Earl of Verulam and many of the townspeople opposed the expansion of the city boundaries in 1869, but there was rapid expansion and much building at the end of the century, and the population grew by 37% between 1891 and 1901.
In response to a public petition, Queen Victoria issued the second royal charter in 1877, granting the borough city status and Cathedral status to the former Abbey Church. The new diocese was formed the same year, primarily from parts of the larger Diocese of Rochester.
During the interwar period, it became a hub for the electronics industry. It grew rapidly after World War II as part of the post-war redistribution of population out of Greater London. It is now a well-known tourist destination.
St Albans has an oceanic climate (Köppen climate classification Cfb), which is similar to that of the majority of the United Kingdom.