This was our inaugural U3A 'graveyards and memorials' group trip and by all accounts it was most successful. There were nine of us and we met at 11.00 in the grounds of St Peter's on the hottest day of the year so far with everything bathed in sunshine. We couldn't have picked a more beautiful day.
Local social historian and group member, Kate Morris, started by giving us an overview of the Church's history and the highlights we would see as we went around. She introduced us to Sheila Green, a member of St Peter's congregation, and to David Curry who is Project leader for St Peter's Friends' recent restoration work, who would both be walking round with us to impart their knowledge.
Kate pointed out the two imposing buildings opposite us on the other side of the main road. One had been The Old Vicarage and the other a large country house which is believed to have been built by Edward Strong, a master stonemason who had worked on building St Paul's Cathedral. They are now home to a firm of Accountants and Solicitors respectively.
Nothing remains of the original Saxon building, which was probably made of wood, and the church has been rebuilt and restored on more than one occasion. The latest major restoration was carried out in 1893 by Lord Grimthorpe, after he had completed his restoration of The Abbey. He did this at his own expense only after receiving assurances that "there would be no committee" !
Isn't it sad that the one thing I knew about the history of St Peter's prior to our visit was that Ricky and Bianca's second wedding (EastEnders 2009) was filmed both inside and outside the church. Despite living in St Albans for over 30 years and having walked around the churchyard dozens of times, I had never been inside the Church. It wasn't a moment too soon for me to find out a little more. We were shown some of the memorial plaques on the walls and admired the pictures on the stain glass windows which were especially radiant with the sun shining through. I shall certainly return for a longer look as it is a most impressive interior.
It is a large graveyard of, I think, three acres. Some of the most significant graves in the cemetery are unmarked and I refer to the mass burial of soldiers involved in the first and second Battles of St Albans in the War of the Roses in 1455 and 1461. There are also the unmarked pauper burials of foundlings from the London Foundling Hospital who came to wet nurses in St Albans but who sadly died after having been rescued from poverty between 1756 and 1760.
- Peterhead granite
- Cornish granite
- Bessbrook granite
- Canadian granite
- Slate, and
- Sandstone from northern counties.
What I had not really noticed before was the elaborate picture carving on some of the granite. These include the religious depictions which you might expect but also others including (so I am told) an anchor to signify hope, ivy to represent sincerity and faithfulness and a sword showing justice and honesty.
I think what struck me most about the churchyard were the different trees. There were the usual native trees like the yew but I wasn’t expecting to see a huge walnut tree which was planted in memory of a Doctor Nathaniel Cotton who died in 1788 and who was a pioneer in clinical psychology at a time when 'lunatics' were just shut away from society.
There is a section of the graveyard which is being left to grow wild presumably in order to attract wildlife and some of the old graves and monuments are now hidden by ivy. In contrast, there is now a heritage orchard with 22 different varieties of Hertfordshire apples and pears including the St Albans Pippin.
The path through the churchyard has cherry trees in blossom which were donated some years ago by local residents. At the bottom end there is a carved 'Story Chair' with a semi circle of seats all made from a yew tree which came down in last year storms. A wonderful example of practical recycling. This is used by the Church, the local community and schools.