The medieval market town of St. Albans is situated on a hill by the river Ver. During the Wars of the Roses two decisive battles were fought here, in 1455 and 1461.
The Romans settled to the southwest of the city. Excavations of their town, Verulanium, one of the leading cities of Roman Britain, have brought to light a Roman amphitheatre, remnants of the fortifications and a mosaic floor. Other finds from the excavations here are displayed in the Verulanium Museum.
In the center of the city is the Abbey Church, at 550 feet (168 m) the secondlongest cathedral in England. An earlier, Saxon building was founded here in 79 AD on the site of the martyrdom of St. Alban (c. 304), a Roman legionary who had become a Christian.
The present cathedral was built between 1077 and 1326. The Norman crossing tower is the oldest part of the Gothic cathedral. Because the cathedral took 250 years to build, it demonstrates a variety of styles and colors, both inside and out. The Norman nave, for instance, has arches in various shades of color; and, while on the north side the pillars are Norman, there are four bays in Early English style behind the west entrance.
In the old city center, the Museum of St. Albans specializes in local and natural history as well as a rare collection of traditional artisan tools.
Even more specialized is the Organ Museum, which exhibits a collection of old music boxes, working fairground and theatre organs, and other mechanical musical instruments.
Further east is Hatfield, originally a Saxon market town but more recently an important center of the aviation industry. A little outside the town in an enchanting park is Hatfield House, an impressive example of Jacobean architecture. Built in 1607 for the Earls of Salisbury, it is still owned by the family, and today contains collections of period furniture and paintings. Within its grounds also stands part of the old Royal Palace of Hatfield (1497), where Queen Elizabeth I spent much of her childhood.
A few miles further north is Knebworth House, another fine old English stately home, standing in 250 acres (100 ha) of magnificent parkland where herds of deer wander free. Home of the Lytton family since 1493, the house contains many beautiful rooms and a wealth of fine furniture from the 17th and 18th century, objets d’art and a portrait collection. For children the park can offer a large adventure playground and the Fort Knebworth Miniature Railway.
Northwards on the B656 lies Hitchin, a medieval market town with many Tudor and Georgian buildings arranged around a spacious market square. Close by stands a large medieval parish church and the 18th-century Hitchin Priory, furnished by Robert Adam. The Hitchin Museum contains England’s largest selection of period costumes as well as an authentic Victorian chemist’s shop rebuilt inside. Outside is the Physic Garden, devoted to medicinal herbs and shrubs.
Northeast of Hitchin along the A505 lies Letchworth, a garden city laid out to the plans of Ebenezer Howard in 1903. From Letchworth the A505 heads east to Baldock, a picturesque little town founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Its Church of St. Mary boasts an impressive 14th-century steepled tower.