Saintly city that got it right
There was a large celtic settlement at St Albans even before the Romans came marching in to pin Verulamium, as they called it, to their colonial map. Almost every age has left its mark on this ancient Hertfordshire town, 20 miles north of London. From the Roman era there remain walls and mosaics; the middle ages left the town its magnificent abbey church, while elsewhere there are coaching inns, churches, almshouses, and many fine Georgian homes.
St Albans is named after Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr, a Roman soldier who was beheaded for sheltering a priest and whose severed head, legend has it, rolled down a hill and toppled into a well that once stood at the end of a road that is today known as Holywell Street. The saint’s shrine, in the cathedral and overlooked by a finely carved wooden lookout from where a priest would sit guarding it, is still a place of pilgrimage.
Today, built on these ancient foundations, is a busy, modern market town and one of London’s most popular commuter destinations.
Mark Rimell, from estate agent Strutt & Parker, says good schools and a fast commute to London have contributed to the city’s success, but other big pluses include the surrounding Hertfordshire countryside and the pretty and sought-after villages and small towns of Wheathampstead, the Ayots — St Lawrence, Green and St Peter — Childwick Bury, where filmmaker Stanley Kubrick lived, and Aldenham.
“Many people from north London settle in St Albans,” he says. “They are attracted by the green, leafy and suburban feel of the place.”
Properties: for such an ancient town, St Albans has a range of properties; everything from medieval cottages close to the cathedral, to Georgian houses, Victorian houses and cottages, Edwardian and more modern houses built in the Twenties, Thirties and later.
The area attracts: St Albans is popular with families who come for the schools, both state and private. The city is
surrounded by pretty villages and surprisingly beautiful countryside, and the commute to St Pancras on the fast train takes only 20 minutes.
Staying power: once here families tend to stay and there is plenty of scope to move up and down the property ladder so there is no reason to leave.
Post codes: AL1 is the town-centre postcode and includes the conservation area around the cathedral. AL2 includes the southern fringes and villages; AL3 is to the west and north-west, and AL4 is east and north-east St Albans. No particular postcode is more desirable than another — there are desirable neighbourhoods or villages in each postcode.
Best streets: the best street is Marshals Drive, to the north-east of the city centre. It has large, detached mainly Twenties houses many of which have been extensively remodelled, and some are now being knocked down and rebuilt. The most expensive house sold in the road went for £1.771 million in April last year.
Up and coming: Mark Rimell at Strutt & Parker picks the roads to the south of Sandpit Lane, on the western edge of the city, where there is an undervalued pocket of family homes ranging from Victorian to Fifties terrace, semi-detached and detached houses which are a good 10 per cent cheaper than those on the north side of the road.
Roads to aim for are Woodstock Road, Brampton Road and Salisbury Avenue. Jersey Farm on the north-eastern edge of the city is a large Seventies development of affordable homes where it is possible to buy a one-bedroom
“cluster” house for under £175,000.
What’s new: Oaklands (01727 865549) is a large development of 267 one- and two-bedroom flats on the old Oaklands College site on Hatfield Road close to the station, by Nicholas King Homes. The development, set in parkland, is a mix of conversion, refurbishment and new build. It is now 80 per cent sold and part-occupied. One-bedroom flats start at £200,000 and two-bedroom flats range from £265,000 to £425,000.
Mosaic is a central development of 255 studios, one-, two- and three-bedroom flats on London Road by Linden Homes (01727 853760). Prices range from £160,000 for a studio to £320,000 for a three-bedroom flat.
Schools: most of St Albans primary schools get above-average results and there is a good choice of top-performing state comprehensive schools, too. But it is important to check their catchment areas and admissions procedures.
There are three single-sex comprehensives: for girls, there’s Loreto College and St Albans Girls, and for boys, there is Verulam; the top-performing mixed comprehensives are Marlborough, Beaumont and Sandringham. The Cathedral doesn’t have its own dedicated choir school. Instead choristers are drawn from local schools.
The two top private schools are St Albans which takes boys from 11 to 19 — physicist Stephen Hawking is a former pupil — and girls in the sixth form, and St Albans High School for Girls which takes girls from age four to 18, with the junior school situated in Wheathampstead.
Shops and restaurants: St Albans is a busy shopping centre. St Peter’s Street is an attractive, wide street with a mix of Georgian and more modern buildings. A twice-weekly market is held here on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
There are two shopping centres off the main shopping street. The Maltings has a H&M, Topshop and TK Maxx, while the more upmarket St Christopher Place has a Whistles, Hobbs, LK Bennett and Space NK. There are small independent boutiques, gift shops and antique shops in George Street. Chain restaurants such as Zizzi, Pizza Express, Carluccio’s and Wagamama cater for shoppers. The best gastronomic restaurants are Darcys in the city centre on Hatfield Road and the one Michelin-starred Auberge du Lac at nearby Brocket Hall.
Open spaces: St Albans is surrounded by beautiful countryside and in the town itself, Verulamium Park features Roman walls and the Roman museum. The park leads to walks along the River Ver. The Woodland Trust has bought 850 acres of farmland at Sandridge, north of St Albans, where it is planting a new broadleaf forest.
Leisure and the arts: Westminster Lodge in Verulamium Park is St Albans’ council-owned swimming pool. Work is about to start on a new swimming pool and leisure centre adjacent to the old one. St Albans has three theatres: the Abbey, home to the Company of Ten, a well-respected amateur company; the Maltings Arts Theatre and the Alban Arena, both of which serve up a diet of drama, dance, music, comedy and in the case of the Alban Arena, wrestling.
St Albans has no cinema although James Hannaway, who rescued the Rex in Berkhamsted, has recently bought the semi-derelict Odeon in London Road. However, work on the restoration has not yet begun.
Transport: St Albans sits between the M1 and the A1. Trains from St Albans station take 20 minutes to St Pancras and 25 minutes to Farringdon. The cost of an annual season ticket to London is £2,820.
Council: St Albans city and district council (Conservative controlled); band D council tax for the 2010/11 year is £1,448.81 (St Albans City).
One-bedroom flat £190,000
Two-bedroom flat £254,000
Two-bedroom house £302,000
Three-bedroom house £392,000
Four-bedroom house £643,000
One-bedroom flat £800 to £1,000 a month
Two-bedroom flat £1,000 to £1,400 a month
Three-bedroom house £1,400 to £1,800 a month
Four-bedroom house £1,800 to £3,000 a month
Five-bedroom plus house £2,500 to £4,500 a month
Photographs: Barry Phillips