St Albans Cathedral
One of the "Home Counties": that encompass the urban sprawl of modern London, Hertfordshire was one of the first areas to receive the (sometimes dubious) benefits of planned towns. Letchworth, founded in 1903, was the first "garden city" in England, followed soon after by Welwyn Garden City. Though these suburban areas may be of some interest to students of architecture and town planning, more travelers will be drawn to Hertfordshire by Hatfield House
, one of the great treasure houses of England.
Hatfield House was built by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, from 1607, on the remains of the Royal Palace of Hatfield, where Queen Elizabeth I spent her childhood. One wing of that early palace survives in the gardens of the present house. The State Rooms are filled to overflowing with fine art and furniture, while the house is surrounded by 52 acres of formal gardens begun by John Tradescant the Elder.
Roman mosaic at Verulamium
Not to be outdone by Hatfield House is Knebworth
, home of the Lytton family for over 500 years. The current house is a mock-Gothic fantasy set in over 250 acres of gardens and parkland. Knebworth has been used as the backdrop for many popular films over the years, from Batman
to Jane Eyre
For a change from opulence, try Shaw's Corner
, the pleasant cottage home of playwright George Bernard Shaw near Welwyn. The house is kept as it was during Shaw's lifetime, and visitors can see the revolving summerhouse where Shaw did his writing.
Despite the urban nature of much of Hertfordshire, the county boasts several excellent gardens. We've mentioned those surrounding Hatfield and Knebworth; other excellent choices include St Paul's Walden Bury (childhood home of the Queen Mum), Benington Lordship Garden
(a hilltop garden replete with herbaceous borders and "wild-garden" walks), and The Gardens of the Rose near St. Albans, where the National Rose Society has assembled one of the finest collections of roses in the world.
This brings us to the cathedral city of St Albans, formerly the Roman city of Verulamium. Much of the Roman city, which enclosed over 200 acres, has been excavated, and many of the finest remains have found a home at the Verulamium Museum. The Roman Theatre is the finest in Britain, and the nearby remains of a Roman town house, shop, and shrine create a powerful picture of life in Roman Britain. The cathedral
possesses the longest nave in England at 275 feet, and pieces of Roman brick can be seen in its walls. The marvelous 15th century screen and the shrine of St. Alban were painstakingly reassembled after they had been shattered in the Reformation.