For travelers accustomed to visiting ancient classical sites in the Mediterranean and Near East, Roman ruins in England may at first seem underwhelming. They tend to be relatively small in size and often poorly preserved; sometimes little more than a few courses of brick remaining. But it is precisely this manageable size, and the fact that so many Roman sites in England have been so thoroughly studied for so long, that allows the modern visitor to appreciate more intimately these sites. A short train ride north of London, St Albans is a case in point.
A settlement has existed at St Albans since the late Iron Age, when it was a center for the Celtic tribe of the Catuvellauni. With the arrival of the Romans in AD 43, the town began to grow and prosper. But in AD 60 or 61, the year of the Boudiccan Revolt, the town was largely destroyed. Verulamium recovered quickly and by AD 140 the town had doubled in size, covering 100 acres, and featuring a Forum, public baths, many prosperous private townhouses and outlying villas. Despite fires and other blows, the town continued to grow and had sufficient resources at its disposal around AD 275 to build an impressive defensive wall and ditch enclosing an area of 203 acres.
Today the site of Verulamium sits in an idyllic public park, with playing fields, ponds, bike and walking trails and large expanses of open green space and woods, all just at the edge of St Albans itself. The antiquities of the ancient site were recorded as early as the 16th Century, with serious excavations beginning in the mid-19th Century. Much of the site was listed as a public monument in 1923 and acquired by the City of St Albans in 1929. Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler began systematic controlled excavations in 1930. They were followed by the likes of Kathleen Kenyon and other prominent archaeologists, and excavations continue on a smaller scale today. Verulamium Museum was opened on the site in 1939, with major improvements in 1998.
Verulamium Museum houses an outstanding collection of Roman mosaic floors, some of the best Roman wall paintings to have survived in England, and a vast collection of small finds, from the most humble to the magnificent. The quality of the displays is excellent and includes recreated rooms from private homes in the town and finds from the many outlying wealthy villas in the region.
This writer recommends a visit to Verulamium Museum prior to setting off to see the remains of the town. A very good guide book is available from the Museum shop. There are also many good restaurants in the High Street of St Albans for the hungry visitor.