Salisbury, like Winchester, is one of England's oldest towns and a charming example of small town life. With a population of 40,000 it is the only 'city' in the predominantly rural county of Wiltshire. Be on the lookout in Salisbury and Winchester for lovely old houses, some C17, other later — marketplaces, canals, fountains, market crosses. Salisbury lies at the conjunction of four rivers: Avon, Nadder, Bourne, and Wylye. (This is the same Avon as in Bath, not as in Srtatford.) Salisbury is a city rich in relics of the past, but its crowning glory is the cathedral whose tall, elegant spire dominates the town. This is the focus of your visit. You'll probably be spending no more than an hour and a half in Salisbury unless you choose to stop here for lunch. Very good pre-booked guided tours, tailored to your interests and schedule, are available at no extra cost. Please ask the London office if you want a reservation.
Historical sketch The first settlement was pre-historic. The Romans fortified it and called it Sorbiodonum, which was later simplified to "Sarum." (Many people may be familiar with the rather good book Sarum that chronicles the life of this town through all the centuries of its multi-faceted existence.) The ruins of this original settlement of Old Sarum can still be seen two miles north of the present Salisbury. Five great Roman roads converged in Sarum, and after the Norman conquest, a castle was built. In 1070 William the Conqueror came here to review his troops. Excavations have revealed an old cathedral, as well as ancient Roman remains. As you drive from Salisbury to Stonehenge you pass the mound of Old Sarum just off the road to your left. In 1220, New Sarum, the present Salisbury was founded, when the bishop's seat was transferred here from Sarum. The town's design was rare among medieval English cities, laid out in a definite plan, with streets intersecting at right angles around a large central market.
You may have time for a quick visit to the market place; otherwise just go to the cathedral. This is the centre of the medieval town. In the C16 criminals, witches and heretics were burnt at the stake here. In the southeast corner of the market place is the Guildhall (now the Town Hall), built in 1797 on the site of the medieval Guildhall and Dungeon. The prettiest monument is the Poultry Cross, supported on six arches. This was the site of the old meat market and still is the market area (Tuesdays and Saturdays). The houses on St. John Street, Butcher Row and Fish Row are almost all pre-18th century and well preserved. Many are Tudor (C16) with half-timbering. One street in the old section is called the "Canal", because open channels carrying sewage used to run down it (paved over only in 1852).
Salisbury Cathedral and Cathedral Close Have the coach drop you off on Exeter Street alongside the wall of the Cathedral Close as near as possible to the gate. (Otherwise it's a fair old walk from the coach park.) You enter the close through a small door in the gateway. Make sure you have a rendezvous with the driver as he can't park here.
It is probably best to give your introductory commentary to the cathedral on the coach as you come in. The spire is visible from a long way off. This cathedral is among the finest in England. Much of its effect comes from its incomparable setting: so many cathedrals are squashed in by modern buildings and downtown traffic that it is hard to get a clear perspective on them. Salisbury Cathedral, however, is located in the centre of its perfectly preserved medieval Cathedral Close, with lawns trimmed so close they resemble a golf course. The walls of the close were built in the C14 using stone from Old Sarum. Inside, the houses surrounding it create a beautiful ensemble. The first one everybody notices is Hooker House. This is not a brothel but part of the local school. Of the other houses here, former British Prime Minister Edward Heath lives in one, the artist Rex Whistler lived in another, Handel gave his first concert in England in another, and in the largest of them, Mompesson House, the film Sense and Sensibility was recently filmed. Rising from the green expanse of the Close is the cathedral, dominated by its wonderful spire soaring up 404 feet, the tallest spire in England. The scene is unchanged from the one that captivated the early C19 landscape artist John Constable. (Incidentally, it would be worthwhile to pick up a couple of postcards of his views from the National Gallery in London before you go. Apart from their intrinsic loveliness they present the perfect image of the unchanging nature of English small town life.)
In style, the cathedral is a pure example of Early English Gothic — completed in the short span of 38 years from 1220 to1258, using the usual tools of medieval masonry: block and tackle, winches, wooden ramps, etc. (The tower dates from about 100 years later. In spite of this it harmonises perfectly with the body of the church.) Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul's in London, surveyed the cathedral in 1668, and concluded: "The whole pile is large and magnificent, and may justly be accounted one of the finest of the architecture of the age in which it was built." The total area inside is 55,000 square feet. The proportions, outside and in, are expansive and splendid.
After pausing for a photo of the spire, 404 ft high and weighing 6,000 tons, and the intricate decoration of the C14 west front facade go inside to pay the compulsory voluntary donation and rendezvous with your guide if you have one. The atmosphere of the interior is one of harmony and proportion. When you stand in the centre underneath the tower look out for the mark on the floor where Christopher Wren dropped a plumbline from the tower vaults. It fell 2.5 feet off centre. The stained glass is in places fairly disappointing. The original glass was partly destroyed during the Protestant Reformation, when the church ornaments were often removed because they were too "worldly." The rest of the glass was taken out by the architect Wyatt, who renovated the cathedral in the C18. The tall, sharply pointed shape of the windows, however, is superb. On the large columns are slender shafts, made of so-called Purbeck marble (marble-like but not a real marble). Wren praised the "air of grace and dignity" these column shafts provide. Inside the cathedral is the mechanism of the old clock that used to stand in a tower. The clock worked by a rope wound around a heavy beam; the mechanism is exhibited inside. It dates from 1386 and is certainly the oldest working piece of machinery in England, if not in the world. You should look out also for the tombs of Crusaders, bishops and war heroes who died fighting the French at Agincourt. You may also see on display a matchstick model of the cathedral, made for an old Heineken advert and sometimes on display.
The Cloisters The largest cloisters in England are entered from the southwest corner of the southwest transept. The style of the cloisters is C13 with shady cedar trees and richly coloured arcades. The Library in the Cloisters contains one of the four extant copies of the Magna Carta, brought here for safekeeping in 1265. You should check to see if it's open to the public. (For information on the Magna Carta see Windsor and Runnymede notes.) The wondrous Chapter House (a small charge, they pay) is a brilliant octagonal structure, with 60 gorgeous C13 friezes held up by a single pillar which fans out to support the roof. Carvings on the friezes are allegorical, in finest English tradition. Those on the door are excellent; don't miss them.
The cathedral maintains a Cathedral School, where the boys are trained for choral singing. You might see the choristers walking around the cathedral, wearing green cassocks with C18 frilled collars.
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