St Albans Museum and Gallery

Accessible new attraction for heritage city

Accessibility issues can often prove a stumbling block in historic buildings, so it’s a welcome change to hear that in St Albans, access for all has brought with it an unexpected benefit at the city’s brand new cultural attraction.

St Albans Museum & GalleryThe St Albans Museum + Gallery which opened on 8th June, features two glass-sided galleries on the first floor which offer a hitherto unseen perspective on the streets either side of the city centre building.  Installed as a means of moving visitors with mobility issues, they also provide the first ever link from the former Town Hall at the front of the building to the historic octagonal courtroom behind. So now everyone is able to enjoy a pigeon’s eye view of the city’s historic buildings.

I have lived all my life in and around St Albans and have always thought that this wonderful cathedral city suffers from its proximity to London. Barely 20 minutes by fast train from London-St Pancras and easily accessible from the M1 and M25 motorways, it has never wooed international visitors in the same way as Oxford, Cambridge and Canterbury.

St Albans Verulamium MuseumAnd yet we have history and heritage by the bucket-load, starting with the story of St Alban, beheaded by the Romans and England’s first Christian martyr. Verulamium was an important city in Roman times, covered today by the vast open space of Verulamium Park with its recreational facilities and tranquil lake. But the Roman era is brought to life today at the well-stocked Roman museum, the hypocaust, and at England’s best preserved Roman theatre. 

On the hill above the old Roman town stands the magnificent Cathedral with the longest nave in England and, a short stroll away, England’s only medieval town belfry offers wonderful town views. Like your golf? Follow the trail dedicated to local businessman Samuel Ryder, founder of the Ryder Cup. Shop in the twice-weekly market, walk through quaint streets, and relax in historic pubs. 

View down St Peter's StreetThere’s so much to see and do in this buzzing town, but until this summer, St Albans had no focal point for visitors. The city’s museum was a well-stocked but woefully old-fashioned facility away from the main hub. But at last the new St Albans Museum + Gallery provides an amenity for residents and visitors that is worthy of the city. Costing £7.75 million, it opened after a 2-year restoration of the city’s Grade II listed Georgian Town Hall, right in the heart of the shopping area.

Set over three floors, the Museum + Gallery is a launch pad for first-time visitors to the city. Key local attractions are highlighted on a historic timeline which points them to sites around the city where they can go to experience the real deal. But there’s lots to see in the converted Town Hall too before they go exploring. 

St Albans CathedralThe building was erected in 1831 and features a spectacular first-floor council chamber which once hosted large scale meetings, dinners and even dances. Now it’s one of several spaces within the museum that is being used for visiting art exhibitions. So there’s always something different to see.

A new temperature-controlled and secure basement gallery was hand-excavated to house national touring exhibitions and contemporary art shows. First off, until 12 August, is First Impressions, which covers 500 years of printing in the city. St Albans Museum + Gallery is working closely with UH Arts, the University of Hertfordshire’s arts and cultural programme, and later this year the Museum + Gallery will host temporary exhibitions from Hayward Gallery Touring and the V&A Museum of Childhood. 

Andrea Hill with her designsThe experience begins as you walk through the imposing front door and into the high-ceilinged foyer which houses a fabulous museum shop and busy cafe. Many items have been sourced in partnership with the British Museums but there are bespoke gifts as well. I loved the range of items by scarf designer Andrea Hill featuring the l 19th century architect’s drawings for the original building.

Food and drink can be taken to outside tables in the summer months but I’d recommend finding a seat in the octagonal courtroom which has been beautifully restored to make an atmospheric eating space. And it’s disabled friendly too, with space at tables on the upper levels for wheelchairs.

The courtroomIn fact with lifts throughout most of the building, there’s only one part of the project which isn’t accessible to wheelchairs and that’s the former prison area down below the courtroom. Here former prison cells have been converted into conveniences, probably the only time you’ll ever have a loo stop on the wrong side of the law!

St Albans Museum + Gallery is run by St Albans Museum Services who also look after Verulamium Museum, the Hypocaust, the medieval Clock Tower and Sopwell Ruins. The police cell toiletsFunded by a £2.8 million award from the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as by the local Council, heritage organisations and private donors, it is open 7 days a week and admission is free, although there may be a small charge for major visiting exhibitions to cover costs. 

So do come and visit, then explore our city along the self-guided trail around the key sites, using a map available free from the welcome desk. You’re in for a treat!

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Gillian Thornton

Travel writer

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