National Cycle Route 61 passes very close to the campsite here in Welwyn Garden City: from the A1000 on the south side of WGC it crosses the A414 and then follows the line of a former railway through Hatfield and then west for about 7 miles to St Alban’s, ending near the Abbey Station. The quality of the route – in terms of surface, width, junctions and signing – was highly variable and never good, however there is no doubt that had it not existed at all I certainly would not have cycled to St Alban’s and may never have gone there at all.
However all the annoyances of getting there were completely forgotton when I arrived in the old town centre, encountering first the Clock Tower (with its plaque commemorating Queen Eleanor – see photo) and then the Sunday Farmers’ Market. For a while I cycled amidst the many stalls and crowds, using gear 1-1 and scarcely moving forward, but taking it all in: farmhouse pork pies, Gloster Old Spot sausages, beeswax candles, hand-crafted breads … there was even an asian family selling their own recipes of sauces and ready-to-eat items made with them. I bought a cornish pastie and a small bottle of cider for lunch.
Next back down to the Clock Tower, across the road and down the lane to Cathedral. Over the years I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with great places of worship, but here any such concern quickly fell away. I was too late to join the choral eucharist being held at the high alter, but I sat in the nave in a pool of sunlight completely absorbed in the organ music, the singing of the choirs and the spoken word. In fact, experiencing it at one removed seemed somehow to heighten the impact, and I found many of my most long-held beliefs and values rising to the fore.
As the service drew to a close I left to eat my lunch on a bench by the nearby lakes. So many people – many families – quietly enjoying the lovely day, walking, sitting and talking, feeding the gees and ducks, and everything so simple and peaceful. It dawned on me, as I watched and listened, that what makes places like this special is that they are essentially pedestrian in scale and character, places where things happen more slowly, where people’s lives interesect more intimately, and that in going about our daily business we pass and meet people face to face, giving opportunity and time for smiles and pleasantries, but also for much more. It is true that life in the islands is dependent on cars and other motor transport: but we are fortunate that in our work with the walled garden and our croft much of what we do reflects the same timeless values I’m seeing here now.
I phoned Denise to tell her how much I feel I want to draw a line under my 32+ years as a civil engineer: it’s time to move on. Hopefully I will leave full-time work at the end of October, and if I do continue on a casual/part-time basis working at home, I don’t want it to take up too much of my time, and only for up to a year or so. I want to turn my attention – I want us both to work together on our own projects, which will be just as powerful a way of contributing to a better future for all as is the building of motorways, cycle paths or tram systems.
After lunch I explored the park and the Roman remains (rather disappointing), and then back to complete my tour of the Abbey, taking my time. It was a real privelege to to see the new ring of bells, waiting patiently in the N chancel for installation in the tower: what a pity I wasn’t here last weekend for the blessing ceremony – that must truly have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those lucky enough to attend. For the first time for many years, I really felt that I was at a true place of worship, and I noticed how all the visitors treated the place with respect, and how many seemed genuinely to pause and reflect on the music, the art and the relics of the past. The St Alban shrine in particular had the feel of a place of pilgrimage: not that people are likely these days to believe in the miraculous power of bones; but rather that a shrine such as this serves as a focal point for prayer.