For the weekend, my friend and I were ladies of leisure… with a hefty dose of culture, history, luxury and relaxation.
It’s rather apt that the Romans enjoyed their Baths, St Albans is synonymous with that era and we stayed at Sopwell House, a spa hotel on the outskirts of the city.
The hotel obviously wasn’t around in that era (although it’s fun to think of the Romans in their togas mulling around, eating grapes in the spa area), but it still has a fascinating history.
Dating from the 1600s (the earliest reference is 1603 in the deeds as a newly built house), it was later leased and developed in the 1700s by a master mason who worked on St Paul’s Cathedral. Two centuries later, in 1901, Prince Louis of Battenberg leased the country home – his daughter Alice later became mother to Prince Philip.
Fast forward to present day where it is now a hotel.
We travelled by train from Preston, changing at London Euston. One stop on the tube from Euston took us to London St Pancras and our third and final train to St Albans City.
There are two train stations in St Albans. City is a 10 minutes walk from the city centre. St Albans Abbey is situated between our hotel and the city centre, about 15 minutes each way.
We had a pleasant wander into town, stopping for lunch at Gail’s Bakery (lovely soup, very busy) and passing through the bustling street market, and then to our hotel. The route from City station to city centre to residential suburbs to countryside takes about 45 minutes altogether. But to drive or take a taxi will only take 15 minutes or so.
The country road took us to a sweeping driveway and a grand white building. We had arrived. Even as we walked into reception, our senses were captivated by aromatherapy aromas from the spa. A doorman politely greeted us as he held the door open, the ladies at reception were very helpful and attentive, and our first floor room was easy to find.
And oh the room! What a room. It was a twin room, beds were spacious and comfy and there were the usual TV, wardrobe, bedside tables…
… And a settee, two armchairs and a table with a plate of two slices of marzipan cake, a bowl of strawberries and a bottle of water with two glasses. This was the life for us!
Overlooking this scene was a window facing a picturesque country scene of fields and a large house.
The bathroom was clean and modern. To remind us we were in a spa hotel was, hanging up in the bathroom, a robe and slippers.
Our dinner that evening was in The Restaurant (no, I haven’t forgotten the title, that’s its name 🙂). When a pianist is playing, you know you’re in a classy venue. We had two waiters, a sommelier (wine) and food waiter. Both were very attentive and we didn’t have to wait too long for food. 🍷
We had delightful little canapés and a cheese mousse with a French name I cannot remember. I had a white onion and thyme veloute (a little like a soup). My main course – Gloucester Old Spot pork slow cooked belly, cider jus, mousseline potato and glazed parsnips was delicious. C had pan fried halibut, broccoli puree, tender stem broccoli, nori gnocchi and herb emulsion. To finish off, I chose homemade ice cream while C opted for warm almond and pear tart.
The following morning’s breakfast was one of many choices – cereals, cold meats and salmon, toast, rolls, fruit, cooked breakfast buffet… (I chose melon and a small cooked breakfast while C had a cooked breakfast).
After breakfast, we ventured out, walking to the city centre, past the intriguing remains of an old nunnery. Sopwell Nunnery is believed to have been where Anne Boleyn secretly got married to Henry VIII.
The cathedral had a service on so we only saw part of it, namely the 85 metre nave (the longest one in England according to the cathedral website), the nave statues and the medieval wall paintings dating from the 1100s to 1500s. The cathedral dates from 1077 and you can see the Norman influence with the archways. Alas, we missed out seeing the shrine of St Albans.
There was a Christmas Market outside with wooden stalls, fairly small but very seasonal and cosy with festive tunes in the air. On our way back we each drank a mulled wine – the first of the year!
Now let’s head to Verulamium. A trip back in time, even further back than the cathedral. Our route took us past some of St Albans’ olde Tudoresque black and white houses, the pretty village of St Michael’s, complete with former water mill and parish church. The Verulamium museum in the village looked promising but alas, closed on a Sunday – or certainly this particular Sunday. The nearby park and the museum is actually situated on the site of the ancient Roman town of Verulamium – one of the first Romano-British towns to be built and, by AD250, the third largest in the country (London and Cirencester being larger) but we decided to go to the theatre instead.
We crossed a main road, entering the rural estate of Gorhambury. At the ticket booth, it cost £2.50 to enter what was an intriguing archaeological site. The path to the theatre – the only example of its kind in Britain – follows the edge of Watling Street, the main road built by the Roman army joining London to Chester. We could see the foundations of the dressing room (AD160), a town house, the base of a pier from an arch, the shops (the Romans enjoyed a bargain too), the stage… With the mind’s eye we could conjure up the sights of the Greek plays and pantomimes (actors dancing and miming rather than Cinderella and Aladdin) and, less charmingly, fights of the gladiators.
Our minds crammed with this new-found knowledge, we ventured back to 21st century luxury and enjoyed a pot of tea and sandwich at the hotel’s comfortable cocktail lounge. By the looks of it, it’s a popular venue for afternoon tea. I thought the price for a sandwich looked a little expensive (£9) but what a sandwich. We chose salmon and cheese and they were on ‘doorstopper’ chunks of bread. And so tasty… And the crisps were not the standard potato crisps but vegetable ones. Crisp, crunchy, red-tinted beetroot varieties. Yum.
Later in the afternoon (after a rest from our massive sandwiches and our culture-packed time-travelling morning), we tried out the spa. Two warm, bubbly Jacuzzis, a hot dry sauna and steamroom and a swim in the pool (Sunday afternoon was a good time for us to come as it was relatively quiet so plenty of space to swim)… Bliss.
It was cocktail time, again in the, now candlelit, cocktail lounge. My Candlemaker was a Sopwell Signature and was ‘in memory of Sopwell Cotton Mills’, with brandy, port, cinnamon stick and caramel. C opted for a strawberry mojito. Both were delightful. By 8pm we were ready to eat in the Brasserie which is the same venue where breakfast was held. Two courses later of, yet again, sumptuous food, we simply had no room for dessert.
Unfortunately, the next morning our weekend as ladies of luxurious leisure came to an end and it was back to work and the real world. It was delightful while it lasted!
So long Sopwell House, St Albans and Verulamium! Until next time!
Visit http://www.sopwellhouse.co.uk for latest prices and deals.
Thanks to Sopwell House for our little taste of luxury, The Roman Theatre of Verulamium by Dr Rosalind Nibley for being so informative and St Albans for being a fascinating city.
I’ll be back – I haven’t explored the cathedral properly so a good reason to come back! 🙂
Facts of the Day – St Alban
1. St Albans is venerated as the first recorded British Christian martyr.
2. It is traditionally believed he gave shelter to a priest fleeing persecution.
3. He was beheaded in the Roman city of Verulamium in the third or fourth century.
Historical information also from St Albans Cathedral and Sopwell House websites