Salisbury & Salisbury Cathedral
If you can visit only one cathedral town during your travels in Britain, your outing should be to Salisbury. The picturesque cathedral and its close invite visitors to step back in time to a medieval English town center. Sightseers get a glimpse of even earlier periods if they travel to nearby Sarum and Stonehenge.
Salisbury was first known as “New Sarum” when the sanctuary site was chosen and construction began—Old Sarum could not provide enough space for the grand 13th Century cathedral. Old Sarum is located about two miles north of Salisbury and became possibly the most infamous of the ‘rotten boroughs.’
If you have the time, a lovely walk along the River Avon will take you to this hill fort that dates back to 500 B.C.
In its heyday, Old Sarum accommodated Romans, Saxons, and Normans as each group established its presence in England. Sarum is now preserved as an English Heritage site. Visitors can see the remains of a prehistoric fortress as well as those of a Norman palace and cathedral.
Salisbury, Wiltshire – England, UK
Three rivers—the Nadder, Ebble, Wylye and Bourne—join the River Avon in Salisbury. The abundance of water was important in choosing this area for settlement.
The Old Mill, Wiltshire’s first paper mill, dates to around 1500 and was a working mill for centuries straddling the River Nadder. More recently converted to a hotel, pub and restaurant it retains its Tudor mullioned and quatre foil windows and arched door frames.
An open air market is still held in Salisbury on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Held regularly since 1227, the Market Place had several stone crosses marking the location for specific trades or goods. Only the Poultry Cross remains. Believed to have been erected in the early 16th century the Poultry Cross is in the form of an open hexagon with six heavily buttressed piers.
A funfair dating back to a grant in 1226 by King Henry III to the Bishop of Salisbury is held in the Market Place in late October.
There are several historic churches in Salisbury in addition to the Cathedral; St Martin’s, the longest established with the tower and front dating back to the 13th Century, St Thomas’s of Canterbury current building dates from the 15th century and features the largest chancel painting in England—‘Doom’ above the chancel arch, St Edmund’s built in 1269 and rebuilt in 1407 and again in the 17th Century is now the home of the Salisbury Arts Centre and adjoins the Council House.
Along with many other historic attractions in Salisbury there is a Victorian style tower sits on Fisherton Street beside Fisherton Bridge. The site was once occupied by a prison dating to 1421. The tower incorporates Georgian masonry from the prison in its base and features a illuminated clock with four dials. John Roberts, a Salisbury doctor, had it constructed as a memorial to his wife in 1892.
In addition to being one of Britain’s most beautiful medieval structures, the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Salisbury has many distinctive features. Salisbury Cathedral has Britain’s tallest spire (404 feet), the nation’s largest cathedral cloisters and the largest Cathedral Close (80 acres) in Britain.
A cloister typically includes four corridors with a garth or courtyard in the middle. Intended to be covered but open to the air a cloister attached to a Cathedral church usually indicates it is—or once was—a monastic foundation. The Salisbury Cathedral cloisters, along with the Chapter House, tower and spire were added after the main cathedral was completed.
Salisbury Cathedral houses Europe’s oldest working clock, dating from 1386 and still ticking. Originally located in a bell tower that was demolished the clock was repaired and restored in 1956. It has no clock face. It rings a chime of bells on the hour to summon bishops to prayer.
The Chapter House displays what many consider to be the best-preserved of the four surviving original copies of The Magna Carta (one of the fellows present for the signing at Runnymede in 1215 later became a canon of the cathedral).
Imagine if you were a master craftsman in the Middle Ages, a stonemason or a glazier, for example, you might have spent your entire working life as part of a large team erecting only one cathedral. It was likely that your son and grandson would continue your work, since most European cathedrals of the period required the labor and talents of multiple generations. Not so with this cathedral. Salisbury holds the unique distinction of being built in only 38 years, 1220-1258.
The cathedral has a team of volunteer guides ready to answer questions (like what is being done to counteract the spire’s leaning) and to lead free tours. A fee is charged for the once daily tower tour, a 332-step climb to the cathedral’s roof. Space is limited, so reservations are recommended.
There are a number of medieval tombs within the Cathedral ranging from the relatively plain—such as one for Sir John De Montacute who died in 1389 having fought at Creey in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356 and who was later steward to King Richard II—to extraordinary grand marble tombs with accompanying sculptures.
The opulent tomb of Sir Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford includes both his effigy and that of his wife Katherine, sister of Lady Jane Grey. Katherine’s effigy is slightly elevated to indicate her higher social standing relative to her husband. Painted effigies of Sir Richard Mompesson and his wife occupy the Mompesson tomb in Salisbury Cathedral. The Mompesson’s owned a Georgian townhouse founded in the 14th century and now owned by the National Trust—Mompesson House in the Cathedral Close.
Salisbury Cathedral Close
The Salisbury Cathedral Close is a preserved area near the cathedral that was originally set aside for priests, canons, and other church workers; based on seniority and station, each was given either an acre and a half or three acres of land.
Many historic buildings, such as the bishop’s palace that is now the Cathedral School and Sarum College in a late 17th Century house, are located in the Close. Some properties are still used by the cathedral, but most are leased out for various uses. Some, including the Medieval Hall, are open for visitors.
Great gates guard the entrances to the Cathedral close and are still locked every night. The High Street, or North Gate faced the town center.
The King had allowed the Cathedral authorities to protect their close with a massive wall in 1327 and the town center side of the High Street Gate proudly proclaims its royal sanction by displaying the royal arms. Inside the gate the porter’s lodge retains 14th Century details.
Choristers Green, just inside High Street Gate, is a grassy quadrangle surrounded by Stuart and Georgian houses built by wealthy laymen on plots once reserved for members of the cathedral Chapter.
The green’s name comes from the former School for Cathedral Choristers, now known as Wren Hall. Funded by a former pupil of the Cathedral School, Wren Hall was built in 1714 to furnish a classroom and additional dormitories for the choristers.
The Salisbury Plain is home to several prehistoric monuments that still puzzle archeologists and scientists, while amazing and delighting the less academic among us.
Located about eight miles north of Salisbury, Stonehenge, with its circle of massive upright rocks, is the best-known of these ancient sites. It was built between 3000 B.C. and 1500 B.C. The experts are still unsure—was it built as a Neolithic temple for religious observance, as a celestial calendar and astronomical observatory, or …. ? The huge standing stones, some of which were transported 240 miles from mountains in Wales, are silent on the subject.
Stonehenge and the nearby stone circles of Avebury were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1986. If you have time for exploration, other ancient monuments, earthworks, burial mounds, and cemeteries, including the Stonehenge Cursus, King Barrows, and Woodhenge, surround the area.
Getting to Salisbury from London
Travel from London to Salisbury is quick and easy. Trains leave London’s Waterloo Station every hour for the 90 minute trip (add an hour if you change trains in Basingstoke). Travel by bus (National Express from Victoria Coach Station) is less convenient with minimal savings over taking the train. Driving the 90 miles between the two cities is another option and should take about 2 hours though once you arrive you’ll not need the car so unless you already have a rental the train is probably your best option.
by Katie Calvert