In St Albans I thought about two of its celebrated citizens, Benny Hill and Stephen Hawking.
Yeah, you got me. Just Benny Hill.
Colonised by the Romans, who called it Verulamium, it’s just north of London. It’s pretty and historic. When we lived there it had eighty pubs.
On the way to Watford is the Warner Brothers studio tour. Once the decade of filming Harry Potter wrapped, someone gasped at the tracts of wizardy robes, giant spiders and the Great Hall, and murmured, “What will we do with all this lot?” In the first week of January, we found out.
Alex and Max loved the blue screen experience. Their Flying Ford Anglia zipped high above the Scottish countryside, and their racing broomstick swooped low over the Thames. As a mate noted,
Nothing is better named than the Nimbus 2000.
An enormous challenge was the Quidditch scenes. These were filmed with skydiving, industrial fans and Russian swings launching body doubles like bungy jump mishaps. I’m staggered by the collective imagination.
An inanimate star of the franchise is the huge model of Hogwarts Castle. When the time spent designing and building is totalled, it took seventy-four years to construct. That’s even longer than watching all of St Kilda’s footy trip highlights!
Lastly, of course, you are cast adrift in an oceanic gift shop, reminding you that while this is fun, it’s primarily commerce. As the mortgage is finalised on two wands and a Gryffindor scarf, I spot a man in the kit of the previously secret, fifth Hogwarts house, Fremantle.
The purple haze of the Dockers? Here, in this magical kingdom of spells and free-flowing football? As Hagrid would attest, the Geelong hoops are distinctly Hogwarts. After all, who didn’t love Cameron Ling’s performance as pureblood wizard Ron Weasley?
One of my favourite patches on the planet fits on an Adelaide oval or two. Our tour begins at St Albans Cathedral, which is 551 feet along its immense and picturesque nave.
Alban earned his sainthood by sheltering and then substituting himself for a local priest. It was a Roman version of the Fine Cotton affair. Unlike the horse, which lived to the impressive age of thirty-two, Alban was beheaded.
Expertly detached, his noggin started a-rolling, and moving appreciably from leg to off, bounced to the bottom of the hill. At this spot, legend suggests, a well instantly began gushing, and is named Holywell.
Surrounding both the former monastery and Roman city is one hundred acres of gorgeous expanse, Verulamium Park. When the first shafts of pale spring sunshine coax the temperature into double digits, cider-guzzling locals strip down to their waists, and hoof soccer balls about with splendid inaccuracy.
The concluding locale in our painterly excursion is the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. Built in 793AD, it’s England’s oldest pub. It’s superb.
As an Australian Rules footballer I was a rover. Sorry, kids, that’s a primeval term for midfielder. So low is the pub ceiling that about a thousand years ago, if I was picked for the Verulamium Caesars, in the derby against the Londinium Scurvy Knaves, I obviously would’ve rucked.
I used to love walking in there, proudly but pointlessly ducking my head, and pretending I was Shaun Rehn, minus the knee braces. And this, before I’ve even had a beer, is every pub’s function: to help us feel unrealistically good.
With exposed beams, snug nooks and an enticing lunch menu, it’s like we never left. The boys sit by the dancing fire. There’s the Belgian strawberry beer, Fruili, to which Kerry utters, “Yum.”
Trickling by the pub and the ornamental lake is the diminutive River Ver. An energetic hour in the tavern means even from a stationary start, and into a breeze, most males would carry it comfortably.
But cathedral, park and pub make an exquisite spot and now, exploring with our boys, it still is.
Inside the abbey we lit votive candles at the tomb of St Alban. Max immediately told Alex what he’d asked for. And vice versa. As kids do. Their innocence contrasted with the entrance’s Thatcherite ultimatum,
Your four-pound donation (each) ensures the upkeep of the cathedral.
Since the ninth century a cobblestoned square has hosted twice-weekly markets, offering fish, meat, olives and much else. Beyond the kaleidoscopic colour and movement, and sausage and beef wafts from Charlie O’Brien’s butchery, its soundtrack is bustling fun.
“Pound a bowl,” bellow the greengrocers. We’d often buy a bowl, and later home in the kitchen, wonder at its catholic contents: parsnip, carrot, ear of corn (no eye of newt or toe of frog).
The spruikers are still there, with voices rumbling about the fourteenth century clock tower, sounding like jauntier versions of Ray Winstone,
Get me the money for those potatoes by Wednesday, or you’ve got yourself a little problem. Me.
Who could resist visiting the house they lived in a decade before? Taking a left off Holywell Hill, the Peugeot halts, and I turn down XFM. Why, it’s tiny! Wasn’t it bigger? How has our world again shrunk?
I stole down the path, and looked over the gate like a burglar in a telemovie. The scruffy hedges have been replaced with charmless, pine fences. Also gone is the shed, in front of which, during warm mornings, our precious, now departed terrier Roxy would sun her honeyed fur.
Why are we always disappointed when cherished spaces change, even for the better? We walk under the barren tree. I put Alex and Max in the car, and drive away.
After twenty days in Europe, we make our glutinous, anticlockwise way around the M25, towards Heathrow. Farewelling the icy winds and trains and ancient cityscapes, our A-380 soars to Dubai.
Then, we skim down to the equator, and Singapore, in its muggy summer.