Feature: Tackle St Albans’ Three Tower Challenge for unrivalled views over city centre
PUBLISHED: 07:00 18 September 2017 | UPDATED: 16:57 20 September 2017
As a serious acrophobic in complete denial, I am constantly finding myself having minor panic attacks up high places I volunteered to climb. So when the opportunity to do the St Albans Three Towers Challenge was offered, how could I refuse?
It was a new event in this year’s Heritage Open Day schedule - 12 lucky volunteers were chosen from about 100 applicants to walk 800 steps up St Albans Clock Tower, St Peter’s Church tower, and St Albans Cathedral. These three highest local points offer panoramic views all the way to The Shard and Wembley Stadium - if I had the courage to look.
My intrepid group of climbers met outside the iconic 15th century Clock Tower. It is 64ft high, has 93 steps and walls up to 4ft thick and is the only medieval town belfry still standing in England.
The Gabriel bell rang at the start of the First Battle of St Albans in 1455 and had the important job of sounding the alarm in case of a city fire.
Nowadays the metal is now too fragile to ring, and sits ‘clocked’ inside the building - it last rang to observe Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901.
At this point, I’m cocky. I’ve done this before. I ran 5K once. I’ve got water and semi-study shoes. What can go wrong?
Thankfully, I make it up and out without too much fuss.
Next up, it’s St Peter’s. This tower has slightly more steps, over 100, and is newer - major renovation work had to take place in 1799 when botched construction made the site so dangerous it had to be dismantled.
But the church can boast ten bells, with a grand ringing chamber decorated on all sides with peal boards. A peal of bells has an exhausting minimum of 5,000 changes and lasts for at least three hours.
Bellringers at St Peter’s completed a peal for Queen Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947, for victory in the Second World War in 1945, and for the first time in 1767.
Unfortunately for me, to get onto the roof we had to climb a rather intimidating ladder. Not one to shy away, I scaled up with ease and enjoyed the fog and drizzle obscured view. It is coming down that made me think, for one second, that I might have to throw a full-on tantrum and insist the fire brigade rescue me. As it was, I just recited ‘don’t look down, don’t look down’ in a relatively cliche way until solid ground was under me.
At the bottom I catch up with my fellow explorers. Friends Cathy Lovett and Cathy Tomney have managed the Yorkshire Three Peaks and national Three Peaks Challenges - tiny compared with the gargantuan St Albans tower feat, right?
“We are loving it, it’s exciting because we have both grown up in St Albans and we have both gone up the Clock Tower when it cost 3p - so it’s exciting to do it all again,” one of the Cathies says enthusiastically. The other agrees: “We are St Albans through and through. It’s lovely to participate in an event like this.”
None seemed to be on the edge of quitting just yet, but we had still to attempt the main event - St Albans Cathedral.
Standing tall with 211 steps, the Abbey is steeped in history and the group enjoy a very informative tour. There are 13 bells in the Cathedral and if all the changes were played in here, the peal would last more than 400 million years.
We learned Norman lime mortar was originally used to give the tower flexibility - until renovators cleverly replaced everything with cement. Fast forward to 1947 and every single brick had to be removed, flipped, and replaced with the original binder.
By this time it is really starting to rain, and the view from the top is shrouded. Probably for the best, for me, and by some miracle I have blagged confidence the entire way and achieved all three towers. For all our efforts the group received medals - I can think of it next time I am hyperventilating and straddling the floor half way up the Eiffel Tower.