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Salisbury, England

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Did You Know … ?

  • Salisbury Cathedral is home to one of four surviving Magna Cartas, written in 1215.
  • Educated estimates suggest it took 30 million man-hours to build Stonehenge.
  • Longleat was the first drive-through safari park outside of Africa (1966).
  • The builders of Stonehenge did not have the wheel.
  • The cathedral spire leans 27.5 inches to the south and 17.5 inches to the west.

Gateway to Stonehenge

Salisbury plus the nearby Stonehenge and Old Sarum can be visited on a day trip from London, which is 75 miles to the northeast. But for a more leisurely and meaningful visit, history buffs may opt to use Salisbury as a base, staying in one of the city’s historic inns — some dating from the 13th century, the era of the city’s founding.

The rewards are manifold, starting with the city itself and specifically its cathedral. Built between 1220 and 1258, it was constructed almost entirely in early English gothic, and its vast interior showcases more than 750 years of history in its architecture, statuary, windows, medieval sarcophagi and its treasures, including a 1215 Magna Carta.

The 80-acre cathedral close, England’s largest, is lined with museums and period houses of interest to visitors, including the Mompesson House, a fine example of Queen Anne architecture, and the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.

With its medieval roots, Salisbury still retains period pubs, the better to entertain its 21st century visitors. The city also is noted in certain circles for the Salisbury Festival, its playhouse and its open-air Charter Market, open two days a week year-round.

Some portion of Salisbury’s visitors come to town specifically to see Stonehenge, which is a short bus ride or drive away. Stonehenge is a somewhat mysterious assemblage of a few dozen gargantuan mostly upright stones. Constructed in stages between about 3100 B.C. and 1600 B.C., it was presumably created for religious ceremonies and perhaps as a kind of calendar. The central axis aligns with the sun on Midsummer’s Day. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Finally, Old Sarum is on the edge of Salisbury and was the city’s original site. It was an Iron Age hill fort. Old Sarum was occupied by Romans, Saxons and Normans for hundreds of years — until the construction of a new cathedral in today’s Salisbury. Residents soon abandoned the older settlement. Today, visitors have a clear view of Old Sarum’s ancient defenses (circular banks of dirt with intervening ditches) and what’s left of the old cathedral and a Norman castle.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Visit Stonehenge at the summer solstice for a chance to walk among the standing stones. Stay for sunrise, and — if the sky is clear — see for yourself that the central axis is aligned with the rising sun on that date.
  • For an experience without the crowds, drive a little further and see what’s left of a less-visited stonehenge, plus the burial mounds, at Avebury. You can walk among and touch these stones.
  • Time a visit to Old Sarum, two miles out of town, to coincide with an English Heritage-sponsored reenactment event — of special interest to photographers and history buffs. There are buses, but you can walk to the site from Salisbury.
  • Cycle in the Wiltshire countryside around Salisbury, a good way to see some of the charming nearby villages.
  • Or plan a walking itinerary to accomplish the same goal.
  • Stay at one of the Salisbury inns that dates back several hundred years. The oldest date from the 13th century.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Look for an original Magna Carta at Salisbury Cathedral. Take a tower tour, which involves climbing 332 steps to the base of the cathedral’s spire. Attend a service in the massive church.
  • For a significant change of pace, earn a “ranger diploma” at Longleat House and Safari Park by engaging in activities like grooming guinea pigs or weighing and measuring tortoises.
  • Follow the doings — even choose your favorite — at the Waiters’ and Bartenders’ Race, which is part of Salisbury’s annual autumn Food and Drink Festival. More to the point, the event includes wine and beer tents, cookery demonstrations, barbecues and special menus.
  • Have a meal at the Haunch of Venison, one of the oldest hostelries in town. It boasts a solid pewter bar and is said to have a resident ghost.
  • Celebrate St. George’s Day in April, a festivity that may include a dragon reenactment event, battling knights and other hints of myth and medieval life.
  • Make a day trip to Stonehenge, allowing plenty of time to peruse its huge stones and ponder the meaning of it all.

Things to do for Authentics

  • See a theatrical production at the Salisbury Playhouse.
  • Take tea at the King’s House Cafe at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, and have a look at the museum’s diverse collection of treasures.
  • Study an outstanding example of Queen Anne architecture at the Mompesson House, built in 1701 right on the cathedral close. It also is furnished with period pieces — and light lunches and cream teas are on offer in the tearoom.
  • Also, see Wilton House, an impressive country manor four miles west of Salisbury.
  • Come to town for the Salisbury International Arts Festival, which occurs in the May-June time period.
  • Shop, or at least browse, at the Salisbury Charter Market, an open-air market on the evocatively named Fish Row. Several cafes around the market offer food, as well as beer, wine and coffee.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Visit Wiltshire at www.visitwiltshire.co.uk/salisbury/home