A Visit to Old Sarum in Salisbury, England

The allure of the mystical stone circles of the Salisbury Plain was what brought me to Salisbury on my first trip 30 years ago. I had been to Stonehenge and stopped in Salisbury to catch my bus back to London. At the bus depot I happened to see a sign advertising an Iron Age hill fort, Old Sarum, some four kilometres out of town. As I was researching Celtic history for a work-in-progress novel, I decided to take a look. That was my introduction to Old Sarum and because of this spontaneous visit, I’ve been drawn back to Salisbury on several occasions, most recently last summer.

The town of Salisbury wasn’t established until 1220 although there’s been a settlement there at least from the Bronze Age. There’s actually evidence of a Neolithic settlement on the hilltop of Old Sarum. Salisbury has been called “New Sarum” to distinguish it from the original settlement. You can read all about the fascinating history of this area in Edward Rutherfurd’s novel “Sarum”.  Located at the confluence of five rivers on the Salisbury Plain, the town is surrounded by verdant meadows with farms and grazing lands.

The same year that the town was founded, in 1220, the building of the beautiful medieval Salisbury cathedral was begun. The main church only took 20 years to build. The official name is the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary but it is most commonly known as Salisbury Cathedral. It has the tallest church spire in the UK (12.3m/404 ft.) You can take the Tower Tour to view the interior of the hollow spire. The cathedral houses the best preserved original copy of the Magna Carta and the largest cloister. It also has the world’s oldest working clock, dating from AD 1386. Author Ken Follet’s historical fiction novel “Pillars of the Earth”, now made into a movie, tells some of the history of the building of a fictitious cathedral based on Salisbury Cathedral. The location of the fictitious town of Kingsbridge is not far from Salisbury.

Unfortunately, this time when I visited it was in the evening and I was unable to view the interior or take advantage of any of the tours. Most of my visits to Salisbury have been quick day-trips, mainly to explore the site of Old Sarum. This time I stayed for several days at the beautiful and reasonably priced Byways Guest  House, close to the town center.

Salisbury is easy to navigate around by foot, with many interesting old buildings surrounding the area of the cathedral which dominates the city. And the area also contains several shopping centres, unique shops, boutiques and art galleries. Public markets are held in the 15th century Market Place every Tuesday and Saturday since 1227.  There used to be several stone crosses marking the centres for trades and goods but only the Poultry Cross remains today.

A fair is held in the Cathedral Close from the third Monday in October. This is one of Salisbury’s ancient traditions along with the annual St. George’s Day pageant, the origins of which go back to the 13th century. The city walls that surround the Close were built in the 14th century. There are five gates in the wall. In a room located above the St. Anne’s Gate, the composer Handel stayed and wrote several works.  Salisbury has always been an artistic community and was an important centre for music in the 18th century. During that time the artist John Constable made a number of landscape paintings that featured the cathedral and the surrounding countryside. Every year there is an International Arts Festival in Salisbury.

After exploring the market and Cathedral Close area I stopped in at the cozy Red Lion Hotel and enjoyed a delicious dinner of fish and chips in the relaxing, authentic atmosphere of the hotel dining room. The Red Lion was once a famous coaching inn. The south medieval wing was built from 1280 -1320 as a hostel for draughtsmen who were constructing the Cathedral.

Whether you are just passing through Salisbury on your way to see the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge or, like me, to explore the ancient hill fort of Old Sarum, there is a good choice of public transportation to and from the city, both by coach and rail.

Written by W. Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com

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