In late 2014, the Lonely Planet website ran a ‘Best in Travel’ collection of destinations to visit for the following year. Coinciding with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, it selected the city of Salisbury, in Wiltshire, as the seventh best city in the world to visit during 2015 from a wide ranging host of alternatives, beating the likes of Vienna, Chennai and Toronto in the top ten.
Having previously passed through the city by train numerous times, usually en-route towards the more well known destinations of Devon and Cornwall, further towards the very south-west of England, I have never thought to stop to have a look around. Inspired by the selection by Lonely Planet, I decided to visit Salisbury for the first time to properly to see it for my own eyes. Here are some of the reasons why it has beaten some formidable competition as a place to see in 2015.
Walk among History
Likely to be the first attraction you’ll see when arriving into Salisbury is the iconic 13th Century Gothic cathedral. It dominates the horizon, and dwarfs everything else surrounding it.
Completed in 1265, the towering spire – the tallest in the UK at just over 400ft – and majestic façade take your breath away. For such a large structure, it seems impossible to comprehend that such a magnificent and detailed building was completed in just under 40 years. Consider this – the size of the project, the availability of materials and the primitive technologies of the age combined, and compare this to some contemporary comparisons, the nearly 800 year old cathedral is a masterpiece, regardless of any religious beliefs. (For the record, I have none, but am fascinated by the history).
Take a moment to look at the detail of the construction before entering the building. Over 70 individual figures from the Old Testament are carved into the stone stand alongside the tall, narrow windows.
Explore Inside the Cathedral
Stepping inside, the building is free to enter, with a donation towards the considerable upkeep is suggested. As you tour the internal workings of the nave, you’ll be gazing skywards towards the arches and stone pillars above you, as the light streams in from the metaphorical heavens, the scale of the place hard to comprehend. What must of people thought at the time? Seeing a grand and large scale structure must have blown them away.
The cathedral was built in the early 1200’s to replace the 200 year old house of worship in the walls of Old Sarum, a small town and fortification on a neighbouring hill, and one with history as far back as the Neolithic period, roughly to 3000 years BC. Following disagreements between the powermakers at the time, Old Sarum declined once a new cathedral was built on a site two miles south, with the new town of Salisbury forming around the construction work.
The location of the new settlement, supposedly, was decided by firing an arrow from the existing settlement, with the landing spot being the chosen building location – a nice story, but unlikely, given the two mile distance between Old Sarum and the modern day city.
See an original copy of the Magna Carta from 1215 AD
I visited in early February 2015, just before the unveiling of the restored Chapter House outbuilding that will house one of four original versions of the Magna Carta – without understatement, probably one of the most important legal documents, if not the most, ranging influence across middle ages monarchy, the formation of settlements in the new colonies of North America, and, eventually, the formation of the US constitution. The basic outlines of the document – no more than a large, tatty looking sheet of paper and small sized scribbled Latin – still hold the basis of precedent of much of our legislation today, even 800 years on, although specific legislation has been updated over time. A facsimile copy is on display in the main nave of the cathedral until March 2015. Why not take a visit for June, the month that marks the 800th year of the signing of the document?
Explore the Narrow Medieval Streets
Salisbury is not a big city, and most of the sights can be seen on foot. With a population of around 40,000, it has the feel of a small market town rather than a city – a privilege granted via the diocese of the church – namely, it has a cathedral.
Take a stroll from the cathedral, leaving via the square shaped Cloister gardens, past (or into) the Salisbury Museum, located opposite the main entrance to the cathedral. Through the attractive Choristers Square, lined with ornate Georgian era housing, turn left to pass into the nearly grid like centre of the city, passing underneath the arch of the North Gate – a two story building over the High Street road connecting the Cathedral and the city. Pass crooked buildings, overhanging roofs, properties visibly warped through time and use.
Tuesday and Saturday’s play host to a large market in the market square, with local produce on sale at decent prices.
The road names and locations around the town give a hint of the activities throughout the history of the town; Poultry Cross; Butcher Row, Fish Row; and pubs with evocative names like the Haunch of Venison; the Coach and Horses; the Wig and Quill. It is easy to picture the city in a bygone era; the close your eyes and imagine the lives and activities of locals and visitors.
Walk the Town Path to the Old Mill pub
Leaving the centre of the city, take the short ten/fifteen minute walk across the low lying meadows by walking the Town Path towards the small village of Harnham. It’s a tarmac path, suitable for all, and offers a great view towards the dominant cathedral to your left. The irrigated, reed lined meadows that surround you are full of wildlife.
You’ll soon reach a weir, and you’ll pass the twin buildings that comprise the waterside Old Mill pub; one side a low rise brick and stone building; the lower half reminiscent of a castle, parts of which are as old as the city itself. The other half of the pub a ‘newer’ building comprised of brick.
Budget accommodation, grand building
We stayed in a private twin room in the well priced YHA hostel, ideally located around a ten minute walk from the centre of the city, located in a spacious setting.
The following day would see us exploring the historic Neolithic sights of Avebury and surrounds.