Set alongside Watling Street, the vital road link between London and the north-west, Verulamium was established around AD50. Queen Boudica and her rebels destroyed the town in AD60, but the revolt was quashed and Verulamium was rebuilt on a bigger, grander scale. It became the third largest town in Roman Britain, achieving the status of municipium, which granted its people the same rights as Roman citizens.
Modern day St Albans grew up beyond the site of the ancient city, and much of Verulamium now lies under a large attractive park. Remains of the Roman city walls are clearly visible here, and archaeological research has uncovered a treasure-trove of artefacts and building remains. The Verulamium Museum, in the corner of the park, houses most of these findings, beautifully displayed to reveal the history of the Roman town, as well as the daily lives of its inhabitants.
There are striking mosaics, and you can see one of these in situ, further into the park. Protected by an angular white building, the floor is made up of 220,000 tesserae (small stone tiles), and dates from around AD180. Part of this is cut away to reveal the ingenious hypocaust, the underfloor heating system that must have contributed very effectively to the civilising of Rome’s British subjects.
Of course, no self-respecting site of extensive Roman occupation would be complete without a place of entertainment, and St Albans boasts the only visible example of a Roman theatre in Britain. The theatre’s horseshoe shape, tiered seating and stage are clearly defined by stone walls and grassy outlines. Around 7,000 spectators may have crowded in here during the theatre’s heyday and it is surprising, really, to see just how familiar it is. Nearby, you can see the remains of shops that would have faced on to Watling Street, which ran behind the theatre.
Today, St Albans is famous for its cathedral and abbey, which commemorates Alban, the first Christian martyr, executed by the Romans for his beliefs. Bricks from the ruins of Verulamium were used in the building of the cathedral, so the ancient Roman town lives on in its walls. St Albans is still a thriving market town (markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays) and the ‘village’ area of St Michaels provides a pretty, scenic route in which to stop off at one of its many pubs. Enjoy a drink, just as travellers have always done, following in the footsteps of those first Roman soldiers to tramp up Watling Street on their way into Britain.
How to get there
St Albans is 20 miles north of London with easy access from the M1, A1 and M25. It has good rail, coach and bus services, with links to surrounding sights.
Find out more
St Michael’s Street,
St Albans AL3 4SW
Open Mon-Sat, 10am-5.30pm; Sun 2pm-5.30pm. Adults £3.80, concessions £2, under 5s free.
The Six Bells
St Michaels Street,
St Albans AL3 4SH
Good pub food. Excavations in the car park have revealed Roman walls and coins.
The Black Lion Inn
198 Fishpool Street,
St Albans AL3 4SB
Roman artefacts were recently found in this pretty village near St Albans.