Salisbury insider’s guide: Spires and squires


Home to the tallest cathedral spire in Britain, Europe’s oldest-working clock and the world’s best-preserved Magna Carta, Salisbury is a historic treasure trove; the perfect “city in the countryside”

Salisbury meadows

Most English cathedral cities are much older than the cathedrals themselves, with histories reaching back into the Roman era or earlier.

Salisbury is the exception that proves the rule: a medieval ‘new town’ laid out on a grid of streets alongside the cathedral in the 13th century. But one of the best views of city and cathedral is from the ramparts of Old Sarum, on a hillside not quite two miles to the north.

Once an Iron Age hillfort, it was later the site of a medieval castle and the original cathedral, until the 13th century, when Bishop Richard Poore led the clergy down into the valley to build the present cathedral. This windy hilltop, now home only to some picturesque ruins, is where the centre of this cathedral city really ought to be. Old Sarum was abandoned for several reasons, including a lack of space, the difficulty of obtaining fresh water and a dispute with the garrison of the castle. According to legend, the location of the new cathedral was determined by the fall of an arrow fired from Old Sarum, although it would have been difficult to fire an arrow two miles, even with the north wind blowing a gale.

Whatever the truth of the story, we have every reason to be grateful for the subsequent course of events, as they led to the creation of one of the most magnificent sights in the British Isles: the dazzling, dizzying spire of Salisbury Cathedral. Built in 1320, 404 feet (123 metres) high, it is the largest spire in Britain and taller than any other spire built before 1400 that is still standing anywhere. Drive or walk over the hills that surround Salisbury and it is this majestic stone structure, pointing towards heaven that you see before anything else.

At the heart of the city, the market square has been the city’s focal point since a market was first held here in 1227 and the streets around it are full of good places to eat and drink and shop. There are as many historical buildings and sights as you’d expect to find in a cathedral city, including the gates through the remaining stretches of the old city wall into the Cathedral Close; and the Poultry Cross, the last of many stone crosses which once marked out the areas for different trades in the town market.

If you join one of the cathedral’s Tower Tours – and I very much recommend that you do – you’ll get the chance to sample the best views available of the city centre as you look out from the stone balconies at the base of the cathedral spire over the green lawns of the Cathedral Close, fringed by many of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the medieval streets and market square to the north and the water meadows alongside the River Nadder to the west.

My guide for the Tower Tour was Caroline Waldman, a retired nurse and hospice manager and one of about 600 volunteers who perform various vital tasks to keep the cathedral running. Caroline says the best thing about working at the cathedral is the chance to share with people from many different backgrounds the sense of wonder the building seems to instill in so many visitors, and the devotion it inspires in those who live and work in and around it.

Cathedral window

“I love the sense that it has been there for such a long time,” she says. “Our hopes and fears and prayers become embedded in the place. It feels like a living building. It’s a great privilege to work there.” The Tower Tour is also a great way to find out more about how the cathedral was built. Caroline led us up narrow staircases into the roof space, above the cathedral’s ceilings, to see the timber framework that carries the roof, and other hidden reminders of the cathedral’s construction, like put-log holes, gaps in the brickwork that supported wooden scaffolding used by the masons who built the last few courses of stone at the top of the walls, seven and a half centuries ago.

You can also see the various means by which the tower and spire have been strengthened over the centuries, including some amazing labyrinthine 14th-century wooden scaffolding inside the spire itself and stone buttresses built to support the extra weight of the upper tower and spire added in the 14th century. Raising the tower and adding the spire added 6,500 tons (6,604 metric tonnes) of weight to the building. Stand at the bases of the pillars below the tower in the nave and look up and you’ll see that extra bulk has produced a noticeable, and slightly alarming bend in the pillars.

Other treasures in the cathedral include the oldest working modern clock in the world, built in 1386 for use in a separate bell tower in the Close, which stood about 320 feet north west of the cathedral between 1265 and its demolition in 1792. The clock was then hidden in a storeroom for more than a century until rediscovered in the 1920s and restored to full working order in the 1950s. It has no face, but chimes out the hours, to summon the medieval clergy to prayer.

Visitors will also enjoy the 14th–century Chapter House, where a detailed stone frieze depicts scenes from Genesis and Exodus, including Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel and where one of the four original copies of Magna Carta is homed, along with changing exhibitions about medieval literature and scripture.

Back in the nave I am delighted by the new font, installed to mark the cathedral’s 750th anniversary (September 2008). It’s a beautiful piece of art, built by the sculptor William Pye, a dark green bronze cruciform, three metres long to allow full immersion baptism, standing on a base of the same Purbeck stone from which the cathedral was built. The water that flows across it acts as a perfectly clear mirror, reflecting the ancient Gothic architecture of the cathedral and the faces of children wondering whether or not to dip their fingers into it.

Arundells, home of a former Prime Minister

But there is much more to see in Salisbury other than the Cathedral. Arundells, a gorgeous 18th-century house in the Close, was the home of former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath for 20 years until his death in 2005. The house is interesting in its own right, built on the site of a medieval canonry and now filled with Sir Edward’s belongings, including extensive collections of musical and sailing memorabilia, reflecting his primary interests outside politics. But all visitors enjoy the two acres of beautifully kept gardens, which slope away gently behind the house, down to the river.

Mompesson House, on Chorister Green, a picturesque rectangle of lawn in a corner of the Close, is another highlight; an elegant 18th-century house, now furnished in the style of Queen Anne’s reign (1702-1714). The shaded and peaceful garden at the back of the house is the perfect setting for afternoon tea and there’s a tearoom tucked away in the corner. You might just also recognise Mompesson as one of the locations used in the film Sense and Sensibility: you can flick though a nice photo album of the film’s stars, including Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman, cavorting in Regency costume.

Also in the Close, the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum is a particularly good place to find out more about the Neolithic heritage of this part of Wiltshire: Salisbury lies within one of the richest areas of prehistoric human sites anywhere in the country; Stonehenge is just a few miles away. The prize exhibit is the ‘Amesbury Archer’, a Bronze Age skeleton whose burial was excavated in 2002 and who was clearly a very important individual, judging from multiple artifacts buried with him, including a large number of arrowheads.

While walking around central Salisbury you should also make time to slip inside St Thomas’s Church, built to serve the spiritual needs of the people who built the cathedral. It’s a wonderfully light space, thanks to its large windows and still very much a thriving church. But the most important thing you’ll find in here is the 15th-century Doom Painting, thought to be the largest in England, high above the Chancel Arch. Painted in 1475, it shows Christ at the Day of Judgement, casting sinners into Hell and sending the righteous to heaven. It was whitewashed over during the Reformation and only rediscovered by chance in the 19th century.

The other essential element of a visit to this city is a walk along the Town Path, which runs beside streams across the water meadows between Salisbury and the neighbouring suburb of Harnham. It offers the best views of the cathedral available from the valley floor and it was from a spot somewhere near the path at the Salisbury end that John Constable painted one of his most celebrated works, Salisbury Cathedral From The Meadows, in 1831.

Finally, do make the effort to get out to Old Sarum: it’s fantastic. There’s not really a vast amount to see, beyond the crumbling flint of the old castle walls, the deep ditches outside the ramparts and the outline of the old cathedral, picked out in stone on the ground north-west of the old castle. But it’s an evocative place that stimulates the imagination and the views back over this pretty, friendly city are spectacular.

Discover our editor’s favourite places to visit in Salisbury!

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