Over the weekend we had the chance to explore two cities in the south east of England that have a fair amount in common. Both are a short train ride from London; both have enough olde worlde buildings to be regularly used as a filming location for period dramas; and of particular relevance to this post, both can lay claim to being home to a famous name whose legacy is known throughout the world.
Yet the contrast in how these two cities promote their star attractions could not be sharper. Rochester, a 40 minute trip along the high speed line from St Pancras, makes much of its Charles Dickens connections. Wander along the high street and you’ll see a plaque on every other building. On one building is the nun’s house from Edwin Drood; on the next is Satis House from Great Expectations; here is Mr Sapsea’s home; wonder into the Guildhall and you’ll learn about Pip and his apprenticeship. Every link to a story is clearly marked while the Visitor Centre and Guildhall make a big show of every possible aspect of the life of Dickens as well as that of his many well-known characters.
The next day we took the opportunity to explore St Albans during the annual Residents First weekend. I was keen to see the old house of Samuel Ryder, a name known around the sporting world for his sporting legacy. In 1927 he set up the first golf match between Great Britain and the United States. The Ryder Cup has since become the most important event in the golfing calendar and one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events.
As well as setting up this golf tournament he made his fortune by creating penny seed packets, enabling people with small homes and modest wages to add colour to their gardens and windows. He was the mayor of St Albans and a dedicated philanthropist, making contribution to many of the city’s institution and leaving a legacy that covers many of the historic buildings.
It would be generous of me to describe my visit to the Samuel Ryder Room as underwhelming. Now an upper room in the Comfort Inn, his office resembles a typical bland corporate meeting room with nothing to tell a visitor of the history of the site. There are a few golf-related photos on the wall but no clues as to why they are there or what the link is between this building and one of the world’s premier sporting events.
Wonder around the city and it’s the same story at the other sites associated with Samuel Ryder. No plaques, no boards, no directions; not a hint to the passing visitor or even the curious resident about the history of a man whose name is known around the sporting world.
It’s hard to understand why St Albans, a city that is desperately keen to attract day-trippers from London, has completely failed to make a noise about one of its most famous residents. He may not be a household name on the scale of Rochester’s Dickens but to millions of golf players and supporters around the world his name will forever be associated with many of the sport’s most famous moments.
Surely there is scope for a museum that celebrates the great moments of the Ryder Cup as well as the life of the man himself (his seed business went on to become part of Holland and Barrett). Of the many millions of American and European visitors who come to London, how many are keen golfers who would jump on a train for 20 minutes to visit the home of the Ryder Cup if the right facilities were provided?
Samuel Ryder doesn’t even manage a mention in the St Albans tourism website although a leaflet has recently been produced that at least allows interested visitors to follow a short trail around the town to see the sites linked to the Ryder story. You can find it in an easy-to-miss corner of the Tourist Information Centre (or here). Hopefully the local tourism folks will find a way to use the city’s links to the Ryder Cup to promote St Albans to a global market. So far their efforts have been distinctly below par.