Flag Fen & St Albans

Up at 5am, left the house at 5:45 to meet Dawn at Haslemere. Being totally organised I bought our tickets last night in order to avoid the late opening ticket office. Actually it opens at 6:20 but I thought 4 minutes was cutting it fine as our train was due to leave at 6:24. As it was, the ticket office was not open when we left.

Our train had to divert around Wimbledon because of engineering work so it took a LOT longer than normal. We passed stations like Virginia Water and Brentwood, sleepy stations with shadowy shapes of weekend commuters lurking. Eventually we crawled into Waterloo.

Our trip suddenly sped up as we took two very well linking tube trains to St Pancras, arriving with half an hour to spare. A much needed coffee was enjoyed by us both then we boarded the 8:55 to Bedford.

Dawn is pretty much a train virgin, usually trusting in her car and negligible navigational skills. So it was fun being the knowledgeable one and guiding her past the numerous pitfalls our journey threw in front of us. Even given her train travel horror stories, she is an excellent travelling companion and we spent the entire three hours talking about me. This was very easy as we know (knew) nothing about each other.

Arrived at Bedford station right on time to a waiting Bev who greeted me with “I’d never forget your face” when quizzed about recognising me. A bit upsetting but I managed to recover. I hadn’t seen either of them for 18 months so it would be no wonder if they didn’t!

So a long trip to Flag Fen with the chat ranging from mutual digs through 2003 to Bev’s son who has been accepted by a cricket academy and will get to meet Mark Ramprakash. Managing to find Flag Fen is a great skill in itself, the signs vanishing just when you need them. We arrived to find Anthea had managed to find the signless spot as well so we booted up and prepared to partake of the wonders of Bronze Age Britain.

Flag Fen is in the Peterborough area and comprises roughly two million acres. Before their widespread draining during the 17th century, the Fens were Britain’s largest area of wetland. The important site of Flag Fen was discovered during a survey by English Heritage in 1982. Since then extensive archaeological excavations have unearthed many artefacts as well as a 3,000 year old line of posts that runs for almost a kilometre across a low-lying wet fen.

The Centre resembles Butser with it’s many roundhouses but differs in that it’s an actual historic site with busy roads surrounding it, giving an almost continuous petrol driven hum to the visit. The timbers from Seahenge were held here for a while for study but have since moved on to Portsmouth. The big stump from the middle, however, appears to have been left behind. It looked a bit forlorn and…well, stump-like.

A large mere was built in 1987 to preserve waterlogged conditions across part of the buried Bronze Age timber platform and post alignment and it has attracted water birds from ducks to very scary, Dawn-hunting swans. Semi-floating on the mere is the Flag Fen museum on watery foundations. After saying hi to the birds and taking heaps of photos of the mini post alignment, we wandered over to the museum which houses many Bronze & Iron Age and Roman artefacts. Included in this collection is what is believed to be the oldest example of a wheel discovered in Britain. Quite amazing to look at this and realise it was the first step on the road to Mars.

There is also the Preservation Hall which houses some of the Bronze Age timbers from the post alignment as they were discovered. A mural has been painted around the walls to give the visitor an idea of how the alignment may have looked when it was originally created. There’s a lot of quotes written about how artefacts are found because ancient people would sacrifice their best pieces to their gods in some sort of religious homage. This led to a heated debate on how this can be proven (it can’t) and why it wasn’t what the aliens told them to do when they visited 3,000 years ago. Surely the alignment could have been a primitive landing strip – each post just needs some sort of burning pot on top.

The Romans built a road straight across the fen in the mid 1st century. It branched off Ermine Street and may have been originally used as a means of transporting troops rapidly into the troublesome region of East Anglia. A cross section of the road has been left open so you can see how they built it. Bev remarked on the lack of the usual gutters running down either side. She also mentioned it could do with a bit of cleaning up! Being the Roman authority she is, we all nodded in sombre agreement.

There’s also a nice, neat little Roman Herb Garden – Christina Shapley lectures here as well as Butser!

We visited the Heritage Centre for souvenirs then, lunch calling, hit the road for a pub.

We ended up at The Crown in Eaton Socon which, coincidentally is a mile from St Neots where I have relatives on my grandmother’s side. This is a gorgeous little pub unfortunately surrounded by busy, busy roads. Still, once inside the hustle and bustle quickly left us and we sat in magnificently comfortable chairs and downed some of Robin’s Revenge, a guest ale. Anthea insisted on calling it Red Robin, totally confusing the bar staff, Bev and generally herself. This was after she missed the roundabout turn off to the pub – she was following – and sped off like a shot from a sling, managing another 30 miles before managing to find somewhere to turn round and come back to us.

Even given the lack of rabbit pie, lunch was delicious and typically pub-sized (ie massive) and we left, sufficiently stuffed, heading for Bev’s so we could drop Anthea’s car off before she completely disappeared off the face of the earth. Then off for St Albans.

Using an ancient Roman map, we managed to find the non-free free carpark, parked, paid and left, in search of the hypocaust. Bev insisted it was in a small hut when she last visited (she was 12!) so we searched but apart from a refreshment hut (closed) and a brick building surrounded by cyclone fencing and diggers, it was remaining hidden. It emerged, after much metaphoric archaeological digging, that the hypocaust was closed because of vandals. I’m assuming this is modern day vandals and not the German guys who beat up on the Romans in the 4th & 5th centuries. Wouldn’t that be funny? Someone who couldn’t stop vandalising Roman sites finds out his lineage stretches back to these Germanic tribes. Ok, not funny, just very, very silly.

We then hopped and skipped across the busy main road in order to see the Roman Theatre in the dying rays of daylight. Just in time as it happened as we were informed in no uncertain terms that the gates would close at 4pm SHARP today because the woman on the gate had to be somewhere else. To be fair she only charged us £1 each instead of the usual £1.50.

The theatre is excellent. Sort of a small version of Verona and Volterra. According to the guidebook it was constructed around AD140 with tiered wooden seating for about 6,000. The picture in the guidebook resembles the Globe Theatre. The theatre was radically changed by AD160-180 then around AD390 it went out of use and the orchestra pit was gradually filled up with rubbish. I’m sure at least one Roman critic wrote “…after so much rubbish issuing forth from the pit, it’s so nice to be able to report it is being returned by the bucketload.”

Drawing of the Roman Theatre

Before St Albans was built on the hill, the Romans built the walled city of Verulamium over the top of a pre-Roman village called Verlamion. It became large and wealthy; the third biggest Roman city in Britain. When the Saxons decided to build St Albans they opted for the hill rather than the flat and so now we have a lot of Roman stuff untouched! Nice old Saxons. In 1721 the Society of Antiquaries published a map by William Stukeley which shows the side by side existence of the two towns.

There is a wonderful museum which is far too hot. Fortunately it stays open until 5:30 so we took our roaming time visiting the various exhibits and listening to the demonstration of Roman soldiery given by the elder Centurion and his hapless slave. We ended up staying almost to closing time though I have to admit I left a little bit earlier as my core temperature was in danger of exceeding acceptable levels. I stood outside lowering it.

When the others joined me outside we decided to hunt down Matt’s recommended pub. It has to be said being not far from the museum had a lot to do with it’s choice. I’m pretty sure it was the Blacksmith’s Arms but whatever it’s name, it was a wonderful example of the friendly, inviting English pub. Lovely atmosphere, great beer; actually the only thing wrong with it was the football scores which upset Dawn I’m afraid, she being a diehard Southampton fan. We had a few Adnams and Bev attacked a small dog for reasons known only to herself then decided to try The Cock, a pub barely three buildings away.

What a world of difference! The staff were nice and friendly but something was missing. No warmth. Too many empty mushroom stools. No tiny little rooms full of red walls and chatting drinkers. The beer was fine – actually I think it was the same as the Arms – but we left after just one. That and the fact that we had to rush off in order to catch our train home.

Not knowing where the station was and no longer having a map (Bev decided to make it magically disappear in disgust at the hypocaust) we obviously went the wrong way and ended up reading a poorly lit map at a garage. Once more jumping into the car we sped off in the right direction and successfully arrived at St Alban station with moments to spare. Of course the train was delayed.

We made a quick dash over to platform 5 to wait for the arrival of the 7:35pm to Wimbledon when I suddenly realised my mistake in asking Dawn to read the indicator board. We quickly rushed back to platform 1 where it was REALLY arriving. Anyway, we still had a long wait and eventually boarded the worst train of the day – the toilets were blocked off and all that beer was eager to evacuate my body. I painfully held on till Wimbledon, over an hour later. This train stopped everywhere! Even Elephant and Castle!

We indulged in a lovely coffee then hopped a train to Woking which we then swapped for a train home to Haslemere, arriving home at a little after 10:30 – thank you for the lift Dawn! A great and very long day.

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