St Albans Cathedral’s new facilities will tell the story of Britain’s first saint
- Credit: Archant
St Albans Cathedral’s new welcome centre is set to open this weekend along with new interactive displays and education facilities.
After three years of renovations, the welcome centre will open to the public this weekend, to coincide with the city's Roman Festival and celebration of Alban as Britain's first saint.
The new welcome area features a timeline telling the story of the cathedral from the year 300 to the present day. There is also a 'Power of Pilgrimage' exhibition, with activities for children including dressing up, brass rubbing and a cartoon telling the story of Amphibalus, a stranger who Alban helped and who converted him to Christianity.
Stephen de Silva, chair of the cathedral's interpretation committee, said: "The building tells the whole story of Britain in all kinds of exciting ways. We've got Roman, Norman, medieval, and the Victorian discovery and rebuilding of the old cathedral.
"The cartoon is focused on Alban's heroism and welcome to a stranger. This takes it back to the basic story that Alban was willing to save a stranger's life."
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There is also an interactive feature where visitors can go on a virtual tour of parts of the cathedral they would not normally see, such as the watching loft where monks used to look over the shrine of St Alban.
Other exhibits show a year in the life of the cathedral, a collection of illuminated manuscripts, and an exploration of pilgrims through the years, from Germanus of Auxerre in the year 429 to the present day.
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During the excavation of the land for the welcome area, archaeologists discovered the grave and skeleton of Abbot John of Wheathampstead, who died in 1465.
His body was identified by the three papal seals, known as 'papal bulls', found within the grave, which were issued to him by Pope Martin V and are now on display in the Power of Pilgrimage exhibition.
The project has cost around £7 million, and was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund then match funded by the cathedral. The welcome area and renovations will be fully finished by the middle of July.
The Dean of St Albans, Rev Jeffrey John, said: "The overall aim of the project is to make St Albans and St Alban himself much better known.
"It really is the first Christian site in the country. Everyone knows about Canterbury and they are 300 years younger than we are. There's an amazing wealth of history. We want facilities in the building which can properly welcome a number of visitors. We've got a lovely new space to look after schoolchildren properly and we've got an accessible building - we never had a lift before."
The Dean explained that the majority of visitors to the cathedral are white Christians who are local to the area, and emphasised the importance of welcoming a wide range of people.
He said: "We're looking at special needs groups, and finding new ways to present information. What we had before was very old-fashioned and stale, and now we have very modern, interactive presentation. We've been very careful to try to preserve the character of the place."
As well as the welcome centre and exhibition, the cathedral also has new facilities for children and school parties who visit, with a new education centre and child-friendly content denoted by a cartoon of St Alban.
The cathedral's library - which provides adult education facilities - has also undergone renovations, the gift shop has moved locations and the Abbots Kitchen café has been renovated.
Where the gift shop previously stood, new interactive displays will greet visitors - enabling them to see, smell and touch remnants of the cathedral's past.
The cathedral also has other projects lined up over the next couple of years, including the renovation of Amphibalus's shrine and the illumination of four of the medieval wall paintings in the nave - which will show how they would have originally appeared.
This weekend, the Alban Pilgrimage will parade through St Peter's Street on Saturday morning, before the Roman-themed 'Alban Fest' from midday in the Abbey Orchard.
These events are part of wider Roman Festival from tomorrow (June 21) to Sunday, June 30, which includes Roman-themed film screenings and performances, food and a replica Roman street market.