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Salisbury: Designed to In-Spire!

by Moira Allen

Once you've gotten past the traffic on the main roads, and navigated through the winding back streets to find your hotel, and had a moment to step out of your car and take a deep breath of Salisbury's crisp, clean air, your first impression of this lovely cathedral town is likely to be: Peace! Even the roads aren't as difficult to negotiate as those in some towns: Since Salisbury and its streets were carefully "planned" in the 13th century, rather than evolving from a web of tracks, lanes and thoroughfares, they aren't as likely to leave you frazzled (or lost).

Salisbury Cathedral

Away from those main roads, however, the peace settles over you like a balm. Traffic noises are far away. Even in the center of town, life seems to move at a calmer, less fidgety pace, and if you choose a hotel a bit further out (further out being "on the other side of the Avon"), you'll find yourself gazing at Salisbury Cathedral's famous 404-foot spire across green water-meadows -- if you can tear your eyes away from the swans gliding up and down the river at the bottom of the garden.

Speaking of gardens, that is likely to be your second impression of Salisbury: flowers! Downtown, nearly every streetlamp is decorated with a hanging basket of blooms, while on the streetcorners you'll find flowerpots arranged in pyramids, supported by iron frameworks. Every hotel seems to have its own flower garden, as well as hanging baskets of flowers by the door and anywhere else that will support a hook. As you walk through the market square, whiffs of floral fragrance will greet you with every shift of the breeze.

Salisbury, of course, is full of more than flowers; it is full of history. The town we now know as Salisbury was once referred to as "New Salisbury," to distinguish it from "Old Salisbury" or "Old Sarum", the town that evolved upon a hillfort just to the north of the "modern" town. The new town of Salisbury was built on lands owned by the Bishop of Salisbury. By the early 13th century, conflict between the monks of Salisbury's original cathedral and the soldiers who manned the fortress within which it stood had reached intolerable levels (see the related article on Old Sarum), and the bishop received approval to build a new cathedral elsewhere. The area chosen was a stretch of marshy ground known as Myrifeld near the River Avon, an area a later bishop described (not inaccurately!) as "spacious fields of pleasantness". Work began on the new cathedral in 1220, and the beginnings of "New Salisbury" were laid out at the same time.

Community of St. Nicholas Hospital Salisbury

Because Salisbury was a "planned" town rather than one that evolved from earlier villages or settlements, its streets were laid out in rectangular patterns, and were unusually wide for the day -- which is a boon to modern traffic! By the 14th century, all the main streets had been established, with the river as the town's western boundary and the line of the modern Rampart Road as its eastern edge. Many streets retain their medieval names, and many of these names, in turn, were taken from the owners of nearby house owners. For example, Cheese Corner, in the market place, was not where cheeses were sold, but rather, was the location of the home of John Cheese, mayor of Salisbury in 1290.

Rose and Crown Salisbury

Many of Salisbury's medieval buildings have survived as well. The Rose and Crown Inn, just across the Avon (and thus, technically, "outside" the original town), dates from the 14th century. Today, this very comfortable hotel offers accommodations both in its modern addition and in the original building; it also features an excellent restaurant, and a lovely rose garden on the banks of the Avon. If you visit, be sure to take a trip upstairs to see the 14th-century wattle-and-daub corridor, criss-crossed with dark timbers; you'll be hard-pressed to find a single straight line in the older section of the building! You'll find more 14th-century timbers in the hotel's original pub.

Another ancient (and luxurious) hotel is The Red Lion. Situated just off the market square, this is believed to be England's oldest "purpose-built" hotel -- i.e., a building that began life as a hotel (rather than a manor or abbey or oast) and remains one today. The building dates from 1230, and also boasts an excellent (though pricey) restaurant. It's worth a visit just to see some of the many antiques in the lobby, including a carved fireplace mantel and a massive, carved wooded floor clock.

Salisbury Tudor Building

In the market square itself, you'll find Tudor buildings sitting beside modern shops, and the stone-carved 13th-century market cross (a shady spot where butter was once sold) just a short distance from the Tesco supermarket. Salisbury's charter market is still held in this square; don't even bother trying to find a parking spot around here on the weekend!

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury CathedralWherever you wander in Salisbury, however, your attention will always be drawn back to that spire, for the cathedral is the heart of this town and the primary reason for a visit. Officially the "cathedral church of the Blessed Virgin Mary," its Foundation Stone was laid by Bishop Poore in 1220, and the cathedral was dedicated 38 years later. Like Salisbury itself, the cathedral design was planned, rather than evolving from an earlier church -- or being added to in bits and pieces over the centuries. Thus, it is all built in a single style: Early English Gothic. The only significant additions are the tower and spire, which was completed around 1330 and, at 404 feet (123 meters), is the tallest in Britain. (It is also the tallest surviving spire in the world dating from before 1400.) The top 50 feet of the spire were built from the outside, and must be maintained from the outside; thus, iron rungs are set into the stone so that an official (presumably with a good head for heights) can regularly climb to the top of the spire and inspect it!

Another benefit from this early planning was the decision to set the cathedral in a large, open "close" (which may sound like a contradiction in terms!). Thus, the building is not hemmed in by later construction, and as you approach, you can see the structure clearly from several angles. Come closer still, and you'll see that the entire front face of the building is covered with statues -- saints, bishops, kings and angels, their detailed faces beautifully preserved. A carving of Mary holding the infant Jesus, flanked by angels, presides over the main doors.

Inside, one's impression is of space, openness, light. One of the first sights to greet you is Europe's oldest working clock, dating from 1386 or earlier. It's a bit large for the mantle, with huge weights turning the iron cogs. The clock has no face; it was designed to indicate the time by ringing a bell (which summoned the bishops to service). It was originally located in a bell tower that was torn down in 1792; the clock was restored to working order in 1956. Ironically, today Salisbury cathedral has no bells; the only other "bell-less" cathedrals in England are Ely and Norwich.

Salisbury Cathedral clockBesides the clock, there is much to see in the cathedral: Magnificent stained glass windows or "lights," pillars of Purbeck marble (which is actually a crystalline limestone from Dorset), tombs and monuments of every description, and beautifully carved and decorated wooden quire stalls. Most of the windows date from the 1800's or later (including some very modern windows); most of the older windows were removed either during the Reformation (which was very hard on stained glass!) or during James Wyatt's remodeling of the cathedral in the 1790's. One memorial to look for in particular is a revolving, illuminated etched Steuben glass prism depicting the cathedral, donated by engraver Laurence Whistler to commemorate his brother, Rex, who was killed in Normandy in 1944.

The octagonal chapter house, which was built between 1263 and 1284, features an interior frieze depicting scenes from Genesis and Exodus. In medieval times, the clergy started their day with a reading of a chapter of the Bible in the Chapter House, and this is also where cathedral business would have been discussed. It is most noted today, however, for housing the one of the four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta (and the best preserved). Elias of Dereham, who supervised the construction of the cathedral, was present at Runnymede when the Magna Carta was signed, and was given the task of distributing the copies; clearly he held on to one! (Another account attributes the acquisition of the Magna Carta to William Longespee or Longpre, the half-brother of King John and the first person officially entombed in the cathedral. Allegedly, when Longespee's tomb was opened centuries later, a dead rat was found in his skull, its corpse containing traces of arsenic.) In addition to the Magna Carta, many other ancient manuscripts are on display in the Chapter House. (This is the one area of the cathedral where photography is forbidden.)

If you find yourself a bit peckish after wandering through the cathedral, the refectory offers an excellent selection of hot and cold lunch dishes (and some very tempting desserts). Even more tempting, however, is the fact that the cafeteria is in the same room as the gift- and book-shop, so it's just about impossible to avoid the temptation to leap up and shop as soon as you've finished your pudding.

The Close

Once you've finished lunch at the cathedral, it's back to the "close" to visit the rest of Salisbury's primary historic attractions, which are conveniently clustered in this central area. The close covers more than half a square mile, and was deliberately laid out for openness. The original purpose of the close was to provide housing for canons and dignitaries of the cathedral within the cathedral precincts (which were later surrounded by a wall in the 15th century). Inside the close, you'll find the Salisbury and Wiltshire Museum (almost directly across from the cathedral), the Wardrobe Military Museum, and the Discover Salisbury Medieval Hall. Just outside the close, on the Chorister's Green, is Mompesson House, and a short distance beyond that is the Queen Elizabeth Gardens. A short walk north, through the medieval gate to the High Street, will bring you to the market place and a host of modern shops.

The Salisbury Museum is definitely the crown jewel of the close. The building that houses it was first constructed in the late 11th century, and largely remodeled in the early 17th century. In 1610 and 1612, Sir Thomas Saddler, registrar to the current bishop of Salisbury, and his wife hosted King James I, Queen Ann of Denmark, and Henry, Prince of Wales. From that point on, the house was known as "The King's House." The house retains its original wooden door, while a stained glass window on the first floor shows the arms of Prince Henry. The house became the site of the museum in 1980.

Wardrobe Museum Salisbury

Here, you'll find galleries leading you through the entire history of Wiltshire, from Neolithic days to the present. The museum covers two large floors, with costumes and medical history exhibits upstairs. One large gallery features the archaeological discovers of William Pitt Rivers, who conducted a great deal of research into the local megaliths but also conducted explorations around the world. You'll also find temporary exhibits depicting some aspect of country life or crafts; when we visited, the museum was offering an exhibit on the construction of willow "hurdles" and fences, and another on local pottery. The bookstore is extremely tempting.

Conversely, you might want to give the "Discover Salisbury" program at the "Medieval Hall" a miss, unless you enjoy condescendingly touristy "orientation" films. Ostensibly, the purpose of the program is to give the visitor some background about Salisbury and Wiltshire. Trestle tables are set up in a dimly lit hall, complete with flickering fake torches. The first flick is narrated by "John and Mary Salisbury," a middle-aged couple who are presumably meant to be the long-lived avatars of the region, reminiscing jovially (nudge nudge, wink wink) about the history they've seen over the centuries. ("Yep, John, I remember them Neolithic farmer fellers...") One can order tea and sandwiches to enhance one's viewing pleasure. If you're tired, however, the dim, quiet room is a great place for a nap (as one must listen to the films through headphones, available in several languages).

High Street Gate SalisburyThe history of the building is far more interesting than its orientation films. Actually, since 1277 it was the cathedral's Deanery, assigned to the deans in perpetuity. In 1582, it was also the site of an attempted murder. For unspecified reasons, one John Farrant, organist and choirmaster, decided to murder Dean John Bridges. He left the choir in the middle of a service, headed across the close to the Deanery, found the dean at his desk, and attempted to stab him. The dean managed to escape and locked himself in an upstairs bedroom. Farrant returned to the choir and finished the service. Several days later the Chapter summoned him to give an account of his actions, but he failed to appear and soon left the area. Shortly thereafter he applied for a position as organist and choirmaster at Hereford Cathedral.

Much more worthwhile is the Wardrobe Museum. Its full name is the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment (Salisbury) Museum, but generally it is known as "Redcoats in the Wardrobe." The building dates from 1254, and once housed the bishops' robes and documents; hence, its title as "The Wardrobe." It now houses an excellent collection of militaria dating from the mid 18th-century through 1994, including a number of beautiful silver pieces. Pass through the museum and you can stroll through a lovely garden down to the river. The museum also offers a small café (though not quite as good as the one in the cathedral). The museum has an excellent website, where you can actually view every item in the collection (including some that are not on display).

One of the first buildings to be completed in the close after the cathedral itself was the Bishop's Palace. It is a palace indeed; in the 14th century, the bishops received a license to crenellate (fortify) the building. In the 15th century, Bishop Beauchamp added a tower and a new great hall. King James I and King Charles I often stayed in the palace when visiting Salisbury. In 1689, James II was staying at the palace while en route to Warminster, where he intended to join his army and fight William of Orange. However, while at the palace, he suffered a nosebleed that kept him bedridden for three days, and during that time his generals switched sides. William of Orange became king, and James was forced to flee into exile.

During the Civil War, the palace was owned by the City of Salisbury, which rented out various sections. A Dutchman turned the ground floor into an alehouse, and so much damage was done to the palace overall that the great hall had to be demolished; it was restored late in 17th century. In 1947, the Bishop decided that the palace was far too grand for a family residence and moved to the South Canonry, and the palace is now used as the Cathedral School. It is open to the public on certain days in August.

Finally, just to the north of the close, on the north side of the Chorister's Green, is Mompesson House. Thomas Mompesson leased a building on this site from the cathedral in 1635, and the existing house was built in 1701 in the Queen Anne style. It was the Bishop's residence from the 1800's to 1951; it now belongs to the National Trust. The house is decorated in Georgian style, and includes fine plasterwork and period furniture, as well as a collection of Turnbull drinking glasses. There is also a small walled garden and a tea-room. In 1995, the house was used as a location for the film Sense and Sensibility. The house is open to visitors from April to October, from 12 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday.

Beyond the Close

The Cathedral Close is a good place to start your tour of Salisbury and its environs, but hardly the place to end it. Salisbury is the ideal location from which to explore some of the most interesting sites in Wiltshire, including Old Sarum (about ten minutes from the town centre) and Stonehenge (less than half an hour away). Other nearby attractions include Old Wardour Castle, Wilton House, the Braemore House and Museum in Fordingbridge (Hampshire), Stourhead House and Gardens (Warminster), and the Rockville Roman Villa (also in Hampshire). The great stone circle of Avebury is just over an hour's drive, and Winchester (with yet another magnificent cathedral) is also close by.

But don't spend all your time in Salisbury running to and from from one sight to the next. Take some time to relax and soak in the peace of its gardens and swans. It will surely inspire you to want to return!

Swans on the River Avon

Salisbury House
Carved Window Ledge, Salisbury
High Street Gate, Salisbury
House in Salisbury Cathedral Close
Salisbury Rose and Crown, a 13th-century coaching inn
The Red Lion, Salisbury
Salisbury Cathedral Statues
Salisbury Cathedral Statues
Salisbury Cathedral Cloisters
Salisbury Cathedral Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral Stained Glass

Related Articles:

Timeline: Salisbury, by Darcy Lewis

Old Sarum: A Layer Cake of History, by Moira Allen

Wilton: Town of Mints, Carpets and Saints, by Moira Allen

Mompesson House, by Huw Francis

The Eternal Mystery of Stonehenge, by Pearl Harris

Stonehenge: The Giants' Dance, by Sue Kendrick

More Information:

Salisbury Tourism
For an online version of Salisbury's printed tourism brochure, go to http://www.visitsalisbury.com/ttrade2006/mapetc.htm#54 - this will give you links to most of the local attractions.

Salisbury (Britain Express)

Salisbury Cathedral
In addition to basic information about the cathedral (not a lot of history, unfortunately), this site gives descriptions of most of the houses in the close, including those that aren't actually open to the public.

Salisbury Cathedral (Wikipedia)

Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

Mompesson House

The Wardrobe Museum

Wiltshire Travel Guide: Historic Houses

Moira Allen has been writing and editing professionally for more than 30 years. She is the author of seven books and several hundred articles. She has been a lifelong Anglophile, and recently achieved her dream of living in England, spending nearly a year and a half in the history town of Hastings. Allen also hosts the Victorian history site VictorianVoices.net, a topical archive of thousands of articles from British and American Victorian periodicals. Allen currently resides in Maryland.
Article and photos © 2007 Moira Allen


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