Sunday, 13 March 2016

TADS #1:St Albans And Around (or Very vernal in Verulamium).

2011 wasn't the greatest year of my life. Readjusting to reduced circumstances I found myself, occasionally, fed up, lonely, and at a loose end. Sitting in pubs watching football on my own was only fun up to a point and was, predictably, creating other problems. One Sunday morning I woke up and decided to take a trip down to Eastbourne and a stroll along the coast to Beachy Head. Just to have a look. I wasn't THAT depressed.

By the time I reached Victoria station I realised there was a 2 hour wait for the next train so the Beachy Head visit was postponed (it happened eventually) and instead I popped in to WHSmiths and picked up a book. The Rough Guide to Walks in London & Southeast England. It turned out to be one of the most important purchases I ever made.

I chose my first walk Along The Arun because you get the train to Amberley (where it started) from Victoria (where I was). I then strolled 11.5k along the banks of the river Arun into the West Sussex market town of Arundel. Despite being stared down by a bullock in a field covered in shit I caught the train back to London that evening feeling both happy and proud. I was definitely going to do more of these walks. All of them probably.

Though to my initial shame and then later my gratitude only one took place in the next two years. Cissbury Ring near Worthing was ascended solo. By 2014 my oldest friend Shep was looking to get some exercise and getting into walking so we picked up the thread. We did a couple of walks not in the book like the mavericks we were but soon we reverted to the tried and tested routes in the trusted tome. Well, they did have pubs handily marked out on them.

In late 2014 we left Lewes, climbed Mount Caburn (got lost for a while, a recurring theme) and returned to Southease with plans to pick the walking up next year (or season).

Which we did - with gusto. 2015 is the year TADS became TADS proper. On our first walk from Salisbury to Stonehenge we were joined by our friends Teresa and Adam. On having our photo taken in a pub garden (that looked like something from a horror film) I realised our initials spelt out TADS - and as we're all from Tadley (where TADS is a thing) the name stuck.

Last year we walked from Kintbury out to Inkpen and Combe Gibbet, did 20k around Windsor Great Park, explored our home turf of Roman Silchester, rambled out from Amersham to Chalfont St Giles and back along the Misbourne valley and had a look at Chequers from the Northern Chilterns. Patterns developed. It became less a walking club and more a peripatetic debating and ale tasting society. Normally it'd end up in a local curry house.

Best of all we got some new recruits. Pam, Virginie and Kathy brought a new perspective to the days out and possibly reined in (a bit) our Tadley chat. Unfortunately their names don't fit easily into the acronym so TADS we remain.

It's not really a winter pursuit. Not so much because of the cold and wet (we've been lucky there) but more because it gets dark too early and it's pretty difficult to locate a stile in a field after sunset. So TADS had lain fallow since late last year. I was bursting to go and pretty excited about convening in St Albans yesterday lunchtime.

Our first walk of the season took us initially into the centre of St Albans city and its nineteenth century town hall adorned with fluted Ionic columns before dropping down to the cathedral. Named, as is the city, for Britain's first Christian martyr initially it looks more like a parish church, it's no Salisbury, but closer inspection reveals it to be quite an impressive beast. Old Roman brickwork has been incorporated into the exterior, Robert Runcie's buried in the VIP section of the graveyard, and a brief perusal of the interior found violinists soundchecking for a Mozart and Faure recital later in the evening.

The book told us we needed to take the diagonal path from the south transept. Despite having no sense of direction and not knowing what a transept was we could all recognise a diagonal path so we headed down to the banks of the River Ver, passing The Fighting Cocks pub (more later), and heading into Verulamium Park.

What a gorgeous park. A pathway runs between the Ver and a lake abundant with waterfowl. Canada geese, coots, moorhens, and seagulls competed for bread and fish. Swans, er, swanned around and there was talk of kittiwake identification. We know how to have fun. A trio of juvenile ducklings swam by (swam?) and the dappled sunlight on their green heads was quite a spectacular thing indeed. We'd chose the right day to come.

Verulamium Park opens up into St Michael's, once a small village but now absorbed into St Albans' suburbs, where stands a ludicrously popular waffle house. The queue was too long for us but, boy, those waffles must be good. We stopped instead at The Rose & Crown where veggie sausage sandwiches and soft drinks were consumed. We'd be back for a proper ale tasting later.

On leaving the pub we passed both the Verulamium Museum and the Roman Theatre without entering either. Time was of the essence and one of the frustrations of these walks, along with life in general, is there simply aren't enough hours in the day. How things have changed since 2011.

Crossing a busy road into Gorhambury Park we hit proper countryside for the first time. The 5k path that sweeps you round in a semi-circle is a permissive path. That means we're only allowed to use it by the 'kind' permission of the rich landowners of the area. Gee, thanks guys. How about letting us have a look at The Fosse (Roman fortifications) and Verlamiom (a first century stronghold of the Belgic Catuvellani tribe) while you're at it?

Despite these limitations it's a pretty stretch. It feels like an extended private drive leading up to a stately home where posh weddings might take place. You get a look at the creamy white facade of Gorhambury House but far more impressive still are the remains of the earlier Gorhambury Manor.

We learnt the meaning of the word lustrum (thanks Teresa) and had a brief discussion about ruin porn and how the back story of this manor predated Detroit's version by some time. Sir Nicholas Bacon (father of philosopher Francis) once lived there and Elizabeth I came to stay once. The mardy madam complained the place was too small so an extension was built before selling on to the splendidly monikered Grimston family. The Grimstons eventually moved to Gorhambury House but intentionally left the manor looking like romantic old ruins. The fakers.

A downhill stretch us saw us flanked by sheep to the left and longhorn cattle (whose horns seemed to be pre-tagging them for any social media photo use later on, as if!) to the right.

After that we dipped under the M10 and across the A4147 where flowers on the side of the road indicated the perils of crossing here. Quite what the box of discared Bon Jovi CDs, calvados decanters, and DVDs indicated though I don't know.

The path then continued alongside the M1. Not your typical afternoon stroll in the country. We passed through the barely there hamlet of Appspond and arrived in Potters Crouch, a pretty village of duckpond and black weatherboard houses, with the promise of a pint in The Holly Bush. It was closed. I'd forgotten country pubs do this.

We walked off our mild frustration, headed through Park Wood, along King Harry Lane, through a suburban 70s housing estate before finally reaching Verulamium Park again and heading back to the Rose and Crown where Shep was eager to get his lips round a pint of Adnams. I opted for Thwaites Wainwright and enjoyed both the beer and conversation as I jealously eyed the Scrabble players at the next table.

Up the road in The Six Bells I tried an equally delightful pint of Tring's Bring me Sunshine and as rugby played in the background pub talk turned to politics and punctuation. The latter much to Shep's distaste. Though to be fair to him he did order Teresa a latte without complaint. Something of a first?

I was starting to get hungry but there was no way we were leaving St Albans without a drink in The Fighting Cocks first. It's one of about a dozen contenders for Britain's oldest pub (other notables being in Nottingham and Stow-on-the-Wold) and it looks impressively antiquated from outside though less so once inside. There was a fairly dreadful blues rock band running through their repertoire in one bar so I nursed my pint of Pure Ubu in another before we headed off. We'd ticked that box.

Our final stop was, you guessed it, a curry one. Trip Advisor had rated Alban so we gave that a go. I had a cheese and tomato concoction I can't remember, or find, the exact name of. It was tasty if a little too mild. I'm not the type of maniac to order the spiciest thing on the menu before submerging my head in the nearest available fish tank but if the water on the table remains untouched that tells me something. It must be noted in passing that other diners remarked upon the absence of lime pickle with the poppadums and Shep was most disappointed they didn't serve Bangla. Although he enjoyed the Cobra enough to go back for seconds.

It was a good walk, a great day, and a fun start to our season. Plans are already afoot to go again in April and there'll, no doubt, be more on that at the time.

A brief note on the numbering system (like anyone cares!). TADS #1 refers to the first blogged walk rather than the first actual walk.

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