Following the sad news of his death, we visit the place where Stephen Hawking received his early education – the town of St Albans, 20 miles north of London
Stephen Hawking is renowned throughout the world for his contribution to the world of physics. His bestselling book A Brief History of Time sold more than 10 million copies and while the university professor and writer was long associated with Cambridge (as told in the film The Theory of Everything), he spent much of his early life in St Albans, Hertfordshire.
The Roman city is where Professor Stephen Hawking’s education all began. Hawking attended the historic St Albans School in the heart of the city’s old town. Founded in 948 by Wulsin (Abbot Ulsinus), St Albans School is the oldest public school in the UK, and one of the oldest in the world. Hawking spoke fondly of his charismatic Armenian maths teacher Dick Tahta with whom he built a giant proto-computer from switchboard scrap, calling it the biggest inspiration of his teenage years. And as Hawking’s former classmate and friend Michael Church said: “St Albans had a particularly poignant significance for Stephen: those were almost the last golden days when he could run, jump, ballroom-dance, play tennis (erratically) and lead a normally active life.”
On his walk to school Hawking would pass some of the most historic locations in the country, including St Albans Abbey, birthplace of Magna Carta. The first meeting to discuss the world’s most historical document, was held at St Albans Abbey in 1213 as it was the principal abbey in the country at that time. The powerful barons and clergy first met the king’s representative at the abbey to air their dark grievances against King John, while the abbey was also the first place of Christian worship and the site where Britain’s first saint, Alban, was executed.
Also on Hawking’s journey to school was the oldest working medieval Clock Tower in Britain, which is located in the square where the first Battle of St Albans marked the start of the Wars of the Roses in 1455. Built between 1403 and 1412, the Clock Tower is the only medieval town belfry in England whose fine bell has survived over 600 years of use. Built as a political statement it was used by the townspeople to assert their freedom, power and wealth in the face of the premier Benedictine Abbey of England (now St Albans Cathedral).
In Roman times, the city was known as Verulamium, and plenty more sites of interest abound in the award-winning Verulamium Museum, featuring mosaics and recreated Roman rooms. Just a short walk away is the Roman Theatre, linked to two temples dedicated to gods and used primarily at times of religious festivals but also for armed combat and wild beast shows. Close by are the foundations of a Roman town house, a secret shrine and a row of Roman shops. And in the city’s Verulamium Park lies a Roman Mosaic that was part of a suite of rooms in a large town house built around AD 200. The 1,800-year-old hypocaust and its covering mosaic floor were uncovered during excavations in the 1930s.
From the St Albans traditional street market to the world renowned Royal National Rose Society Gardens, St Albans is a great place for a restful weekend or day trip. Stay in the lovingly restored Straw House in the heart of the old town with views of St Albans School, the cathedral and the 14th-century Abbey Gateway, which was used as a prison following the dissolution of the Abbey in 1539.
Or if you prefer your history recounted over a convivial pint of real ale, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans claims to be the oldest pub in the UK with its wooden beams and foundations dating back to the 8th century –it’s even mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records. The traditional pub also happens to be on the same road as Hawking’s old school, although whether or not the young student ever stopped by for a tipple remains – like the black holes he spent a lifetime studying – one of the great mysteries of the universe.