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Talking Buildings

Posted on: 21st October 2016 By: Stef Eastoe

Ever wondered about the stories behind many of St Albans’ buildings as you wander past? Discover more about the city’s heritage by listening to Talking Buildings - an interactive sound installation on the hoardings around the Town Hall from winter 2016.

A team of 19 fantastic museum volunteers worked on the project for 4 months and researched 35 buildings between them – from the Waterend Barn and Waxhouse Gate to The Old Library and the often-missed mosaic above Forrester House on St Peter’s Street.

The knowledgeable St Albans Town Guides kicked things off with a tour of some of the city centre’s buildings to inspire them, then each volunteer research a building or two. Andrew Parker, a Lecturer in the University of Hertfordshire’s Creative Arts team led a lively workshop to help the volunteers find the “personality” of the buildings so they could lend their voice to them and record short audio clips which passers-by can hear in the wind-up speakers on the hoardings or via the website which also hosts their wider research.

Did you know that the man who designed the mosaic on St Peter’s Street above Greggs also designed the escalator and Egyptian Hall at Harrods? Or that melons were once grown in the gardens around St Peter’s Street?
Did you know that the medieval foundations under Waxhouse Gate are nearly two and half meters thick? Or that the Clock Tower bell was rung at the start of the First Battle of St Albans in 1455?

If you have any memories of the buildings you would like to share – from dances in the Town Hall to when The Gables was a chemist or a draper’s, the museum team would love to hear from you – you can contact us on

All the stories, as well as the transcripts and the longer research will be available online at

Many thanks to the Museum Volunteers and team, the St Albans Tour Guides, St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, the Battlefields Trust, St Albans Civic Society, St Albans Central Library and everyone else who has been involved in this project.

Find out more about what was involved by hearing from the volunteers themselves: 

Caroline Howkins, Volunteer: "I volunteered for the Museum’s intriguingly titled, “Talking Buildings” project, the brief for which included researching the history of local buildings, writing a one-minute script, recording it, and then recording the history.
Back in March, twenty volunteers started the project by going on a guided walk around the city centre with St Albans City Tour Guides to show us some of the local buildings included in the project; The Corn Exchange, The Clock Tower, The White Hart Hotel, the Samuel Ryder Office and Seed Hall, to name but a few.
Volunteers were able to choose two or three buildings from a total of 33 which they would like to research over the following months with the support of colleagues at the SAHAAS library, the Museum’s library and archives and St Albans’ Central Library. Our purpose wasn’t to find out everything there was to know about our buildings but to identify an interesting story connected to it, some fascinating facts or hopefully to uncover a hidden secret.
We spent a most enjoyable morning listening to each other’s 5 minute talks, learning all sorts of interesting stories and facts about buildings that we had passed time and time again, but seldom stopped to think about their individual histories and how they had contributed to our city’s heritage.
It was remarkably hard whittling the pages of research to just a one minute talk, to be recorded at the museum. What voice does the Clock Tower speak in? Is it male or female? Grumpy, old codger complaining about all these young whippersnappers and harking back to the good old days? Or was it sanguine, wise and measured looking back philosophically over the passing time?
16 of the recordings were selected to be put onto two “U-Turn Round” kinetic speaker devices which will be embedded into the hoardings surrounding the Town Hall when construction work begins. Tourists and visitors will be able to select a building, wind up the device and listen to the buildings telling their stories and sharing what’s on their mind."

Marit Gruijs, Volunteer: "My building of choice was the Old Town Hall, also known as the Moot Hall, which is where the newsagent W.H. Smith is now. I always found this an intriguing building and wanted to know more about its history and the people that used to live there. It turns out at some point in time, the downstairs area was used a a gaol, housing the local thieves and thugs while waiting their trials. Upstairs the local governing bodies of the town held their meetings and their balls, and the court would keep their hearings upstairs too. Two different worlds in one building! Until it became too small and a new Town Hall was built.
I thoroughly enjoyed doing this research and I learned so much more about our beautiful, historical town, and in particular this building of course. I met helpful people from the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society (SAHAAS), who recently reopened their library for visitors, and at the local public library. I hope local residents and visitors alike all enjoy our project!"

Andrew Lucas, Volunteer: "I chose to research Waxhouse Gate and 30-32 Market Place as they are both buildings which have a fascinating past and are much older than they initially appear to be. The process has been both interesting and fun. From the guided walk around the city centre to carrying out research in the library and recording the scripts at the museum, it has been a chance to learn more about the building of St Albans, meet some interesting people and to learn new skills."

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