Beds, Herts & Bucks

St Albans Abbey's £7m welcome centre opens

St Albans Abbey Image copyright Picasa
Image caption The story of Britain's first saint and the role the cathedral has played in the nation's history is told in an interactive journey

A £7m welcome centre at St Albans Abbey that tells the story of the church in "new ways" has opened.

The story of Britain's first saint and the role the Hertfordshire cathedral has played in the nation's history is told in an interactive journey.

Visitors travel from Roman times to the present using touch screens and videos and see artefacts unearthed during the excavations for the new building.

A spokesman said it was a "step change" for the city.

Stephen De Silva, chairman of the interpretation committee, said: "We've never been able to tell our stories in such a beautiful and interesting way."

'Amazing privilege'

The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban sits on the site of the execution and burial of Alban, Britain's first Christian martyr and saint, and has been a site of worship and pilgrimage for more than 1,700 years.

Image caption The Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John said: "People don't realise St Albans Abbey is the oldest Christian site in the country by far. It's nearly 300 years older than Canterbury."
Image copyright Picasa
Image caption The new building includes a shop, cafe and classrooms

The new project was funded by about £4.2m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, with nearly £3m raised by the abbey through more than 1,000 donors.

The building includes a shop, cafe, classrooms and a library.

Image caption A timeline tells the story of the Abbey alongside the history of the nation
Image caption Visitors come across sensory panels where they can hear, touch, see, smell, the cathedral and download a trail app

A timeline leads visitors into the cathedral where they can hear, touch, see and smell the cathedral and download a trail app.

"I think it's a step change for St Albans, not since the chapter house was built in 1980 has anything as dramatic and as different as this happened, so for us to be alive now and see that and be part of that is just the most amazing privilege," said Mr De Silva.

The Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John, dean of the cathedral, said "Our main aim is to make the place and the story of Alban known to help people understand how important that is."

St Alban and the cathedral

  • Alban converted to Christianity after being impressed by priest Amphibalus
  • He exchanged clothes with the priest, allowing him to escape from Roman soldiers and was arrested in his place
  • At his trial he declared his faith in "the true and living God who created all things".
  • He was beheaded on a hill outside the city
  • Recent finds suggest a basilica was built over the execution spot in the 3rd Century and later a Saxon Benedictine monastery was founded, probably by King Offa, in about 793
  • This was replaced in 1077 by a large Norman church and monastery
  • During the Reformation, the people of St Albans raised £400 to buy the building from the King Henry VIII so it wouldn't be destroyed
  • The abbey says it is "crucial" to let people know that Alban is Britain's first saint because many think Canterbury saw the beginning of Christianity in England

Source: The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban

The new building has been designed to both "harmonise and sympathise" with both the 1077 abbey and the chapter house and Mr De Silva said the outside "carefully blends" with the original.

Image caption Roman-sized flint bricks (right) were commissioned to blend in with the original building, which was constructed from recycled Roman material

Dr Jeffrey John: "This is primarily a place of worship and meditation so we've been quite careful about the designs so the historical presentation material isn't too intrusive."

Image caption Before construction could begin, archaeologists spent about seven months at the site and some of the artefacts found are now on display
Image caption Medieval manuscripts including the St Albans Psalter (right) are on display
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Image caption The new building houses an extensive library

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