The big idea

Well, there’s not just one big idea deep down in southern England’s heartland, but several – stone circles, ley lines, hill carvings and crop formations, to mention a few. So it’s no surprise that Salisbury, the only city in the county of Wiltshire, is a truly magical little city, packed with mystery and local legends such as the Gold Torc of Monkton Deveril, the Hob Nob, and the Mummified hand.
 
Combine this with reputedly the ‘best view in the country’ (which inspired the likes of Constable), and the ‘most graceful architectural pile in the land’ (the cathedral, which inspired the likes of Thomas Hardy) and you’ll find a visit here is pure magic and spiritually uplifting.
 

Magic and legends

Just a few miles north of Salisbury is Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and quite simply one of those places that inspires contemplation. The formation itself poses many questions: was it a burial site, for sun worship, or an early mega-astronomical calendar? And how did they move the stones such distances (the smaller stones alone came from 200 miles away in Wales)? But above all, Stonehenge never fails to move people – maybe because of the number of ley lines (or energy paths) that reputedly run through it.
 
North of Stonehenge, at the centre of a pre-historic complex in the Marlborough Downs, stands Avebury, the largest stone circle in the world and one of the most important megalithic monuments in Europe.And with Stonehenge’s secret sister site Woodhenge, dating from 2300 BC, only a couple of miles away, Salisbury is a cracking location for exploring fascinating world-famous prehistoric sites.
 
On your way into Salisbury, look out for the famous White horses carved into the hillsides. Eight of the original 13 are still visible and are the source of several local tales – a couple of them are even rumoured to rise at midnight and go to the local village for a drink!
 
Once in the city itself you’ll discover that it’s a place richly endowed with terrific legends. Check out the Hob-Nob and Giant St Christopher, the last remaining ancient guild effigies in the country; or the sumptuous Gold Torc, a Bronze-Age artefact discovered at nearby Monkton Deverill in the 1990s.
 
Even pubs get in on the act. At the splendidly named Haunch of Venison (a pub with the only licensed landing in the country), not only are there a number of reputed hauntings, but you can also see the remains of a severed mummified hand holding playing cards, discovered during restoration work.
 

Inspiration for artists and writers

The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy described the view of the Cathedral Close, under a full summer moon, ‘as beautiful a scene as any I know in England’. You see, Salisbury Cathedral is unique amongst English cathedrals, as it was completed within one century with no significant later changes, and is often cited as being the finest medieval cathedral in the land. But it’s the size of The Close it rises from, the scale and handsomeness of the building, and, at 123m, the tallest spire in the country, that combine to give it a real WOW factor.
 
And if that doesn’t move you, then inside is a roll-call of reasons for inspiration: 8,760 marble pillars, 365 windows, 60 biblical scenes carved in stone,four unique Laurence Whistler glass engravings, Europe’s oldest working mechanical clock, the dramatic and beautiful Prisoner of Conscience window, and, oh, one of only four original exemplarsof theMagna Carta.
Phew...
 
And in The Close itself, with its huge green and spacious lawns and numerous beautiful houses steeped in history and legends, you can’t help but feel your creative juices flowing. After all, this is where Constable stayed when he painted his famous views of the cathedral from the Meadows; and where William Golding, as a local schoolmaster, wrote the famous Lord of the Flies.
 
So all in all it’s no wonder that Country Life magazine voted this the ‘best view in Britain’, and that Bill Bryson states, in his Notes from a Small Island, ‘... no doubt in my mind that Salisbury Cathedral is the single most beautiful structure in England, and The Close around it the most beautiful space’.

The essence

Magical inspiration
 

How Salisbury will make you feel

In a creative and contemplative mood. There’s something magical about the language of the legends here and the way these stories are brought to life, with the iconic views of the cathedral and water meadows, which makes you want to pick up a pencil or paintbrush.
 
So it’s obviously perfect for artists, writers and photographers. But more than that its spot on for a real escape and to lose yourself; it’s really that magical.

History

We can’t talk about Salisbury without referring to the most important prehistoric monument in the whole of the country, Stonehenge; and although what we see today was finished about 3,500 years ago, the original henge, the excavated bank and ditch, is nearer 5,000 years old.
 
By comparison, Salisbury is a very modern city, the history of which actually starts about a mile-and-a-half outside the city centre at a place called Old Sarum. There’s evidence of people living here dating back to the Iron Age, and in Roman times this was the location for a small hill fort. When the Romans left England, it would have remained an isolated fort if Alfred the Great hadn’t decided to strengthen the fortifications as protection against the marauding Danes in the 9th century. It was a good job he did; after destroying Exeter and nearby Wilton, the Danes took one look at the fortifications and decided to leave well enough alone.
 
Later, in 1217, the Bishop got permission to build a new cathedral, not on the hilltop, but nearby on meadowland well served by two rivers flowing into the Avon; in 1220 the foundation stones of the new cathedral at New Sarum, or modern-day Salisbury, were laid. Local legend has it that the site was chosen by shooting an arrow and building where it landed: given that the site is over two miles away, we’re not so sure about that, but, ah, those local legends live on...
 
The 13th century saw the birth of modern Salisbury as, alongside the cathedral, the city was laid out in a grid pattern, with six streets running north to south and five east to west: the squares formed at the intersection of these streets were known as ‘chequers’ and are still in evidence today. At this time the town was granted its first Royal Charter, allowing it to hold a weekly market and an annual fair, and the cathedral was finished in 1258.
 
Salisbury grew steadily, predominantly trading off the sheep which roamed the local Salisbury Plains. So much so, that by the 15th century about a third of the workforce were in the wool trade; it was the city’s main industry and Salisbury was amongst the foremost cloth-making centres in the country, with a striped cloth known as Salisbury Ray sold throughout England.
 
Clay pipes, cutlery and lace-making became popular trades in the 17th and 18th centuries, and around this time Salisbury was proving a popular stopping-off point for stagecoaches on the busy Exeter-to-London route.
 
In 1852, Salisbury showed its creative spirit by being the first city to hold a provincial Great Exhibition, following London’s great success the year before: several thousand visitors came to the town and tourism was by now of growing importance, fuelled by a direct railway link from London.
 
And as we entered the 21st century, Salisbury’s population had grown to nearly 50,000, with much of its wealth coming from tourism. I think Bishop Poore, when he laid out his town plan nearly 800 years ago, would have been mighty proud of how Salisbury turned out.

How to experience Salisbury

Start at Stonehenge – and to experience it in all its glory get there early in the morning. Then, down the A345, you’ll come across the huge Iron Age hill fort that marks where Old Sarum stood. The views are stunning from here as you look down on the new city and cathedral; there are even wooden bows and arrows for sale if you want to imagine what life was like back then.
 
Once you’re done, head south to Salisbury itself. It’s a compact city to get around and many of the shops are housed in attractive half-timbered buildings, but it’s probably best to get your bearings and start at the Poultry Cross on Butcher Row, the last remaining of four market crosses in the city and dating back to the 15th century. From here turn down Queen Street, where you’ll pass the Cross Keys Mall, which includes a 14th century building with an original Jacobean staircase.
 
At the end of this is Winchester Street, which is great for smaller, independent shops, and Blue Boar Row, leading on to the city’s famous Market Place, site of the twice-weekly market which has been held for the past 800 years. Also on this road you’ll find the statue of local lad Henry Fawcett, who, as Postmaster General, founded the parcel post and  invented postal orders.Over the road you’ll see Debenhams and a little blue plaque which marks the execution in 1483 of the second Duke of Buckingham – his ghost is said to haunt the building now, so watch out in the dressing rooms...
 
At the end of this road, cut between Neal’s Yard and Dinghams and you’ll find St Thomas and St Edmund Church, home to The Doom Painting, the biggest painting in the country depicting The Last Judgement; as well as over 250 angels carved in stone and wood. After counting them, head down the High Street towards The Close, or, if you’re after smaller, independent stores, check out the numerous roads which radiate off here such as Fisherton Street.
 
Enter The Close via the High Street gate (dating back nearly 700 years, it used to house a small jail), and once inside stroll around and admire the numerous beautiful buildings.
 
To the right is Mompesson House, which featured in the film Sense and Sensibility, and is a perfect example of Queen Anne architecture. Just around The Green you come to the Rifles (Berkshire and Wiltshire) Museum, otherwise known as The Wardrobe. Along from there isArundells, the former home of Prime Minister Edward Heath and, next-house-but-one, the Mediaeval Hall and Old Deanery.Pop next door into the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum at the King’s House, where you can experience the award-winning Stonehenge Gallery and see the Amesbury Archer, the Monkton Deverill Gold Torc and the Hob-Nob and Giant all in one place. There’s also the Pitt-Rivers collection, which is dedicated to the Victorian often described as the ‘father of scientific archaeology’.
 
At this point, if you leave the close via the Harnham Gate, turn left down Harnham Road and look back over your right shoulder: you’ll see the views of the Cathedral and meadows immortalised by Constable.
 
Back in The Close, head for the Bishop’s Palace, probably the oldest domestic building in The Close, and scene of some momentous chapters in English history (in 1689 King James II stayed here before being forced into exile abroad); then head to the Cathedral.
 
Check out the Walking Madonna statue, a poignant symbol of resurrection, before marvelling at the 67 statues on the West Front of the cathedral. There are so many things to see and experience inside this beautiful building, but, if you’ve got the stamina, take the Tower Tour up 332 steps: the views are breathtaking. Or why not go for choral evensong? There’s one every day, it’s free and it’s a mini-concert in itself.
 
Finally, leave The Close via St Ann’s Gate (check out the room above the gate – Handel gave his first concert in England there) into Exeter Street and you’re right at the edge of the Chequers; turn left and you’re back near the start.
 
Once you’ve done the highlights of Salisbury, why not head out west for another couple of treats? Try Wilton House – it’s just three miles outside the city – for 500 years of history, beautiful works of art and exquisite gardens. Or travel a bit further on the road between there and nearby Shaftesbury (lovely town, the one with the famous Hovis advert street) and look at the quite unique Fovant Badges, regimental crests carved into the side of the hills in memory of servicemen lost in World War I.
 

When to visit

City pics

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