4 wonderfully bizarre things about St Albans
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There’s far more to St Albans than great state schools schools and speedy trains into London.
These are just four of the more interesting and amazing things that make the cathedral city stand out from the crowd…
Bonkers about buns
There are many versions of the origin of the hot cross bun, but one that is consistently revisited is the tale of the Alban bun. It is said that on Good Friday, Brother Thomas Rocliffe of St Albans baked his spiced buns to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus with the poor.
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St Albans has proudly laid claim to this delicious invention ever since. However, unfortunately for us, the hot cross bun actually has origins that date back to pre-Christian civilisations. Apparently the buns celebrated the changing of seasons and new, fertile land, with the cross forming a quadrant to represent each season.
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However, it’s said that the beauties we know and love today have not always had their spiced, fruity fragrance or fluffy texture, but rather, could be bounced like a rubber ball and were notoriously difficult to digest. And though Brother Thomas didn’t invent the bun, he certainly added his own delicious twist, seasoning the batter with a concoction of his own spices.
Later, under the reign of Elizabeth I, the buns were scrutinised by Protestant authorities, threatened by the imbedded symbol of the cross, and later banned from England, only to be baked on Good Friday and Christmas.
I know what you’re thinking: “If the Protestants were so against the hot cross bun, why didn’t they just ban them all together?” Well, rumour has it that the strict Protestants, and even those in the royal company, couldn’t resist the delicious smell and taste of the humble bun and, in a state of hunger and weakness, decreed that the buns may be baked for special occasions. (At which time all the naysayers would gorge themselves!)
To this day Albaners love a good hot cross bun, every pub, café, coffee shop and restaurant seems to stock them at Easter time, and the legendary tale of Brother Thomas of St Albans lives on.
You must have heard of the St Albans wild cat, but it’s worthy of our wonderfully bizarre list and deserves a revisit. Sightings of a large cat have been subject to great scrutiny at The Herts Advertiser over the last year, with members of the public claiming to have spotted ‘the beast’ prowling in woodland and lurking in marshy quarters of the Hertfordshire landscape.
Some say they have seen the cat - menacing, slender and agile - wandering on the outskirts of St Albans and in neighbouring towns. Large paw prints have been photographed in golf bunkers, the mutilated carcass of a small deer witnessed by residents, footage of a mysteriously dexterous creature of the night recorded, but the elusive cat remains incognito.
Many members of the public have scoffed, others are fearful, but one thing is for sure: a wild cat on the loose is rather bizarre. What’s more wonderfully bizarre? If the wild cat isn’t real, what a brilliant story St Albans has created for itself!
Things that go bump in the night
Another devilishly elusive subject in this bustling town? Ghosts. The White Hart hotel on Holywell Hill harbours many chilling accounts of spectres, witnessed by guests and staff throughout the years. Dating back to the 1500s, The White Hart is one of the oldest buildings in the city, so it’s no surprise that it has a backlist of unpleasant events.
Formally a coaching inn during the 1800s, a young woman entered on a horse and trap through The White Hart’s low entranceway (still in use to this day). Failing to duck her head, she crashed into the beam, breaking her neck. Her ghost is said to roam the grounds of the hotel, wearing the travelling apparel of a 19th century woman.
Others have recounted that the ghost of a 12 year-old girl looms on the stairs; it’s said that she spoke to a member of staff stating that she had died in a fire many years ago - this proved to be true. A message also appeared on a mirror in room 8, saying: “meet me in room 7 at 7:30”, when it was wiped away it quickly reappeared.
St Albans and the UK’s earliest ‘pretty boy’
In 1455 The War of the Roses began with the commencement of the First Battle of St Albans. Fighting alongside the Lancaster army, James Butler, the first Earl or Wiltshire, placed himself at the forefront of the battle.
Favoured and knighted by King Henry VI, Butler was also famously described as the most beautiful man in the kingdom. An onlooker from the 1455 battle wrote that Butler “fought mainly with the heels, for he was frightened of losing his beauty”.
It would seem that beautiful Butler was all too aware of his strikingly good looks, retreating from the battle, hiding his armour and donning a monk’s clothing. Some sources claim that the battle was fought next to the Clock Tower, so it would be safe to assume that Butler buried his armour somewhere near that spot! Unfortunately in a later battle Butler was captured and beheaded. Oh, the irony!