We are on our way to the beautiful city of Bath Spa, where we are expected at a lovely bed and breakfast…but not until tomorrow. So we’ve boarded a train heading in that general direction to see what captures our attention along the route. It doesn’t take long. Within about an hour we catch our first glimpses of the imposing spire of Salisbury Cathedral, soaring above the billowing oaks of the surrounding landscape. This is, in fact the tallest church spire in Britain and it seems as good a reason as any to overnight in Salisbury.
If we needed another good reason, it’s that the town is overlooked by the remnants of one of the earliest settlements on these beautiful isles. Old Sarum is said to have been settled as far back as 500 BC, during the Iron Age. The location of the fort along the Avon River provided good access to transportation, and it’s perch on the hill overlooking the plains for miles around made Sarum easier to defend. Not withstanding that, the settlement and it’s cathedral were further buffered from invasion by a seriously business-like moat. It would have been an intimidating target for the Vikings who regularly raided Sarum in the earliest centuries. This Old Sarum ‘teaching kit‘ provides a great history of the place.
Standing amid the ruins of Sarum, it takes a reasonable amount of imagination to envision life some 2,000 years ago. This rendering of Old Sarum from Wikipedia illustrates the fort, the original cathedral and the town when it was still a bustling center of trade.
Much of the fortifications were dismantled and sold off, piece by piece for building materials during the tumultuous reign of Henry VIII. But it is nonetheless a truly inspiring place not only for what remains of Old Sarum but for it’s remarkable outlook on New Sarum, the gorgeous Avon River, and the surrounding English countryside. We consider ourselves very fortunate to be visiting on a beautiful Fall day.
New Sarum, or Salisbury is a completely delightful place. With a population of less than 50,000 it barely qualifies as a city but a city it is, and indeed it’s the only city in the lovely county of Wiltshire. At the confluence of five rivers, Salisbury has been a market center since Sarumites decided, around the year 1200, to come down from their hilltop perch and settle on the Plain of Salisbury where they established thriving dairy, beef and wool markets. Charles Dickens modeled some of the markets in his stories around Salisbury’s.
You can’t wander very far without crossing one of the many delightful bridges in Salisbury with scenes that bring to mind Wind in the Willows or Tales of Beatrix Potter. I can almost see Jeremy Fisher casting his line from the banks of these whimsical waterways.
Like many of Britain’s oldest settlements Salisbury was protected behind stout stone walls, with access controlled and likely tolled through five imposing gates. It’s said that the composer Handel lived above St. Ann’s Gate, where he is said to have composed several pieces. This gate leads into Cathedral Close.
We’ve arrived at Salisbury Cathedral just as the first chords of the evening service roll out of the stately pipes of the Father Willis Organ, built in 1877 and considered one of the ‘finest pipe organs in the world’ (Sir Frederick Ouseley, 1877). Few things stop me in my tracks as effectively as the strains of a vintage pipe organ, so I haul my sister into a pew and we settle in for the hour long service. It turns out that this particular evening worship is a memorial to a parishioner who has recently ‘passed on’. I feel something of a voyeur, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and relations all connected in some way to the departed soul. My sister would happily have crept away mid-eulogy but I would have none of it, until the last strains of the last hymn wafted away into the cavernous ceiling, and the spectacular pipe organ was wound down for the night. We nodded our respects to the friends and relations as we left. I might even have muttered something to someone about how sad it was…the ‘passing’. And I thought how odd they might think it that we two strangers from very far away, and with no connection whatsoever, have just passed through their lives at this sad time, for just this moment. I wonder if anyone will remember seeing us at all, or if the question might come up over tomorrow’s tea, “Who were those lovely women sitting next to me at Harry’s service? Were they friends of his? Or distant relatives?”
Edward Rutherfurd’s great book Sarum tells the history of Salisbury around the fictional life of a stonemason on the massive stoneworks that are Salisbury Cathedral. There is a ‘No Photo’ policy here and I was sorry not to have been able to capture the breathtaking effects of the impossibly high ceilings created by the many unique ‘flying buttresses’. But I was consoled somewhat by the exquisite light that bathed our last view of Salisbury Cathedral and Cathedral Close.
This has been a wonderful place to overnight and I am terrifically grateful for my sisters enthusiasm to see Old Sarum – one of the most memorable of experiences. When we planned this trip we purposely left our itinerary fairly loose so we could change our collective mind as we rolled along. One of the few commitments we did make was to spend our last few days in the highly touted UNESCO World Heritage Site – Bath, where we will head tomorrow. And then we will see if we really have saved the best for last. Stay tuned!