A low and distant winter sun casts a bleak February light over a vast and spacious landscape. Verulamium park is blissfully quiet this morning and life seems to be on pause. We enjoy the space and relative emptiness before the finer weather when it will fill with people again.

We walk across a wide expanse of green and gaze into the distance at the St Albans’ skyline leaving behind ordinary life for an hour or so. The Norman architecture of our Cathedral, one of the oldest Benedictine Abbeys in England dominates the horizon. We stand still and my husband tries to name the towers and spires of the smaller churches in the distance.

“Not a skyscraper in sight,” I smile contentedly at the rich heritage of St. Alban’s ancient buildings. In fact, I doubt this idyllic scene would have looked that different a century or two ago; if I were Constable or Gainsborough, I’d do a grand job at depicting the tranquil view and capturing the aesthetics of this rustic scene upon my canvas.

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The steady tread of our footprints leads us onto winding woodland paths. There is a faint smell of earth in the air and the quiet is only disturbed by the crackle of twigs. Last week’s snowfall has left the soil icy and hardened. In some areas, Galanthus sprinkle the frozen grass and one or two crocuses have already started appearing. It has all been left uncultivated which makes it so much more rural than many London parks a mere twenty miles south of here.

We wander amidst trees that are older than I can imagine, tall and straight, or crooked and interlaced. The silhouette of their branches makes complex patterns. A solitary bird swoops then ascends, it looks like a bullfinch, but being a city dweller, I find it hard to distinguish between birds. The lush dark greens and upswept branches of a tall Noble pine tree tower over us and break the brown-grey skeleton tree patterns.

Some of these trees are simply centuries old. I’m more familiar with tree species since moving to Hertfordshire all those years ago and observe the shapes of the leaves. I read somewhere that UK has more ancient trees than the whole of Europe. We can only admire their beauty knowing that they will outlive us all. In ‘Wildwood, A Journey through Trees,’ Roger Deakin reminds us that “to enter the woods is to enter a different world in which we ourselves are transformed,” and that there is “ a residual magic in trees that still touches most of us.”

The wavy ornamental lake, home to herons and swans, Canada geese and tufted ducks is partly frozen over. I’ve never seen it under thick frozen layers shimmering with little ice crystals on such a clear crisp winter’s day.

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We stop at various heritage signs on the hilly slopes and learn more about Verulamium. Named after the third largest town in Roman Britain, it grew into one of the most prosperous cities in the province of Britannia. Despite Boudicca’s revolt in around 60AD which destroyed much of the city, Verulamium recovered by 140AD and continued to grow and prosper for another 400 years.

The grand amphitheatre was able to accommodate thousands of spectators and was linked to two temples dedicated to Roman gods. It all happened on this site, wrestling matches, religious festivals, pantomimes, tragedies and comedies by Greek and Latin playwrights. I stand here and my imagination wanders. I can see it now, the faces of the cheering spectators, the huge roars of laughter. I am standing right in the middle of it all, swept away by the passage of time. This earth beneath my feet holding all of its ancestral memories.

We pass by the remains of Roman city walls covered in moss. Their survival keeps us connected to the past. It was originally built in around 265AD and thought to be five metres high. The wall formed a complete circuit around Verulamium over two miles long and enclosing about 200 acres. The foundations of four huge gateways that controlled the main entrances into the town are still clearly visible.

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Over the years, archaeologists have discovered that there were many beautiful villas and townhouses, a Basilica, public baths, temples and a theatre. We walk on towards the middle of the park and discover a small white building. We peer in through the window and see a Roman mosaic that is still relatively intact! We marvel at its intricacy. I read somewhere that it is made up of around 200,000 ‘tesserae.’ Archaeological excavations by Mortimer and Tessa Wheeler in the 1930’s revealed a 1800-year-old hypocaust, an underfloor heating system covered by this fine mosaic floor. Apparently, it was the custom for aristocrats' houses to feature them and is dated from 180AD.

We end our walk refreshed and invigorated. How nature can please the senses and with a few deep breaths, quiet the chatter of the mind. Auden once wrote “A culture is no better than its woods,” reminding us all to remain guardians our town and city landscapes and to live each season as it passes.

  • Marisa Laycock moved to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city. These columns are also available as podcasts from 92.6FM Radio Verulam at www.radioverulam.com/smallcitylife