Tourist Information Centre, 10 Endless Street, Salisbury. 0722 334956.
(posted Nov 2011): Salisbury (0722 335625).
Salisbury Cathedral stands proud of the orderly collection of buildings which make up the city, and all round it to the north the houses and streets are laid in the pattern of squares or ‘chequers’. If you look for the old town then you must go towards the bare uplands of Salisbury Plain to Old Sarum. When Cenric took the old prehistoric fortress of Old Sarum he named it Searesbyrig – dry town. That is one reason why the seat was moved down into the fertile valley in which they built the new town. Old Sarum, home of the Kings of Wessex, was still a dry, windy place when it became a Bishopric in the eleventh century and, what is more, the priests and the garrison were having a running feud. It was moved from Old to New Sarum when a licence was granted by Pope Honorius, and when Richard I granted Bishop Poore permission to build two miles to the south. The new Cathedral was to be built to the same style as the old in the form of a simple cross. But where exactly was it to be? One legend has it that a bow was drawn at a venture and an arrow was shot into the air to land at the heart of the new Cathedral. It could not have found a more perfect spot if that is true. Old Sarum was abandoned and left to the military, and later it fell into total ruin, its few remaining stones being moved to the new site to build the walls around the Close. Salisbury has always been dominated by its church, but it has also been an important agricultural market town as well as having a military camp at its doors. The construction of the Cathedral commenced in 1220 and it was consecrated within thirty-eight years. Although the main building was completed by 1260, the spire was not finished until 1320. It is the highest in England at 404ft, and is a mere 21/2in out of perpendicular.
The Close is the largest in England. Mompesson House, the Old Deanery, the Choristers’ School, once the Bishop’s Palace, the trees and the lawns are a lovely setting for the church. The Cathedral was ‘modernised’ by an eighteenth-century ‘restorer’, James Wyatt, who some consider earned himself the well-justified nickname of ‘destroyer’: he cleared the interior of campanile, chapels, reredos, screens and tombs. But many tombs remain, as does a clock made of wrought iron which has no face and strikes only the hours.
In The Close is The King’s House, Open All Year, the new home of the Salisbury and Wiltshire Museum, a Tudor mansion which played host to Richard III and James I. Displays trace the history of the surrounding area as well as Salisbury itself, and there are ceramics and costume galleries and some of the earliest surviving medieval pageant figures.
Mompesson House, Choristers Green, The Close, open April to October. Built by a rich merchant, this early eighteenth-century house has rich panelling and a moulded interior.
North Canonry Gardens, The Close, are open in summer. There are a number of other buildings which you will see walking around: Trinity Hospital is now an almshouse, but the chapel and courtyard are open. John A’Port’s House in Queen Street is a half-timbered building, now a shop, built about 1425. Shoe-maker’s Hall, Joiner’s Hall, The Council House and the fourteenth-century Malmesbury House, with its sundial, will catch your eye. Handel is said to have played in the room over St Ann’s Gate. The Gate, together with the three others in the city, is closed at night to keep things temporal and spiritual apart after dark.
Salisbury at one time was so thriving that they had markets just about every day of the week, but Old Sarum and Wilton objected, so the Salisbury market days were cut to two – on Tuesdays and Saturdays. They still have markets, one of them by the Poultry Cross, or High Cross, which is the hexagonal cross with six arches and a central pillar which was erected in 1335, and is still surrounded by market stalls six and a half centuries later.
There is hardly a pub in Salisbury without its own little bit of history. Pepys stayed in the Old George, and at the King’s Arms Royalist supporters helped Charles II escape after his defeat at Worcester. As a touring centre Salisbury has a great deal to offer with the New Forest to the south, Hardy’s Wessex to the west, Salisbury Plain to the north. It is on the secondary main line from London Waterloo to Exeter, which here crosses the Southampton to Bath and Bristol route.