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05/25/2004 Archived Entry: "Knebworth and St Albans"

Saint Albans Cathedral

Knebworth and St Albans

My wife and I recently attended a conference at an hotel built in the grounds of Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. Now mention Knebworth to anyone under 30, and they will probably say, "Ah, yes, I went to a rock concert there". And names like the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Paul McCartney will come out. They have all played there and more recently, Robbie Williams entertained thousands at Knebworth. It has also been used for television and films - Batman and Jane Eyre to mention two.
But the house and grounds are famous for other things too. The house was built in Tudor times and its guests have included Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens and Winston Churchill, whose picture of the Banqueting Hall hangs in the room where he painted it. When we visited we were welcomed by the youthful owner, Hon. Henry Lytton Cobbold whose family have lived here for more than 500 years and he made the point that there are not many treasures in the house, but plenty of stories!
The Lytton family have featured in the nation's history and politics down the centuries with Robert Lytton, Viceroy of India proclaiming Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1877 and Constance Lytton being a suffragette who fought for votes for women in the early 1900s.
Perhaps the most famous resident of Knebworth House was Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the first Baron Lytton (1803-1873). In the 1830s, he was the top-selling novelist of his day and his earnings from books, plays and poems enabled him to refurbish Knebworth House in 1843. Set in 250 acres of parkland, it was transformed from a red-brick Tudor mansion to the Gothic fantasy it is today, but in addition to his writing, Lord Lytton also found time to be MP for St Ives and Lincoln, a cabinet minister and founder of Queensland and British Columbia. He is also said to have written the first crime novel and the house remains a family home.
From Knebworth we visited the market town of St Albans, where we saw a clock tower which was built between 1403 and 1412, now the only medieval town belfry in England. It was permitted to sound its own hours and curfew, and the original bell, known as Gabriel, is still in place. The town itself is considerably older for its origins date to Roman times when the city was founded as Verulamium. Verulamium Park is now a beautiful attraction on the edge of the town and there is a stylish Roman museum too, plus a Roman theatre on Bluehouse Hill, the only one of its period currently open to visitors in Britain. There are other museums too, including one specialising in organs and another displaying Mosquito aircraft.
We found plenty to see and do in St Albans, but pride of place must go to the splendid Cathedral. It stands on a hill which has been the site of Christian worship since Saxon times and in fact some of the bricks from which it is built came from the old Roman city of Verulamium. The mighty church owes its origins to St Alban. He was a pagan, a prominent citizen in Verulamium when Christians were being persecuted and he sheltered a priest called Amphibalus. After talking to the priest, Alban converted to Christianity and helped Amphibalus to escape, but Alban was caught and condemned to death by beheading. He became the first Christian martyr in this country and it was the Saxon King Offa who, in AD 793, petitioned the Pope to canonise Alban. A settlement grew around the site of his martyrdom, and that has now become the present Cathedral. Like all Catholic churches, it suffered at the Reformation but it has now become a venue for differing types of Christian service. A Roman Catholic mass was being held in the Lady Chapel as we toured the church.
Not far from St Albans is Shaw's Corner, an interesting, if not particularly beautiful, house tucked away along a maze of country lanes near Ayot St. Lawrence. This was the home of George Bernard Shaw, the author and playwright who died in 1950. He was awarded an Oscar for Best Screenplay for the film Pygmalion (1938) which was based on his play of that title. Considered the greatest playwright in the English language during the 20th century, his works included Candida, Arms and the Man, Man and Superman, Heartbreak House, Saint Joan and many others over a period of sixty years. He left the house to the National Trust and so it is open to the public. We explored the extensive garden and came across Shaw's cabin where he retreated to escape his many visitors and fans. The cabin is preserved and set out as it would have been when he lived there and one could just imagine him sitting there in perfect peace, getting on with the business of writing.

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