A Spire To Aspire To…

12th April 2008

Salisbury is famed for its lofty cathedral spire, the view of which from the surrounding meadows was immortalised by John Constable. Only 1 hour 30 minutes away by train from Paddington, it’s ideal day trip country…
Jack Watkins made the journey.

Salisbury is Wiltshire’s only city, the age old communication crossing point for a region not much given to large settlements. One of the characters in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit fancied it ‘a very desperate sort of place, a wild and dissipated city.’ I’ve never stayed long enough in the place to find out if that’s true, but to me it’s never seemed so much a big town pleasure type of spot, as one that appealed to the visitor of historical or antiquarian bent.

In the surrounding countryside are some of England’s finest archaeological sites – Old Sarum, Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill among them. The chalk hills of the Salisbury Plain are so full of prehistoric burial mounds that nature writer Richard Jefferies once memorably described them as ‘alive with the dead’. And so countless distinguished archaeologists over the years have passed a merry evening supping – perhaps a little too well – in one of Salisbury’s many old inns before setting off, a touch bleary-eyed, on some field excavation the next morning.

The good soils and fertile valleys tempted some of England’s earliest settlers, so it’s not surprising that the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum isn’t just any old local museum. It contains the most important assemblage of Bronze Age pottery in Britain. It also has the valuable collection of General Pitt-Rivers, ‘the father of modern archaeology’ (more widely recalled these days for the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford) and its wooden cabinets, still ordered by the strict classifications of the great Victorian. Salisbury, for any budding archaeologist, is almost a rite of passage, as much a place of pilgrimage as visiting Rome or Athens for the classical historian.

The more casual tourists among us are lured by simpler pleasures, though, such as admiring the various prospects of the cathedral and its famous spire. I dropped in on a chilly day recently, when all thoughts of spring seemed temporarily to be held in abeyance. As I walked along the Town Path beside the Avon, the wind was icy. Fellow strollers paused only momentarily to enjoy the scene before shivering and hurrying on. But this view was commemorated by John Constable in several studies, most famously in the oil painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (The Rainbow), and I was determined to take it all in. Country Life readers voted it the finest view in England a few years ago. This smacks of a herd-like readership seriously devoid of imagination – I can think of any number of better, or at least equivalent, views – but there is no arguing that, with sheep grazing in the foreground, it presents a remarkably bucolic scene, a blast of countryside surviving unapologetically within the boundaries of a busy urban environment.

The Harnham Water Meadows, as they are known, are also important for another reason. They may seem a lush, romantic sort of place, but in their heyday, between the 17th and early 19th centuries, they represented a system of agriculture at its most advanced. By floating water from the river along a system of raised ‘carriers’, from which it spilled over onto the fields, grass growth was stimulated in the early spring, enabling farmers to graze livestock earlier than was usual, at the time when winter suppliers of fodder were running low. It also enhanced the later production of the hay crop – a ready market for which existed here, supplying hay for the horses at Salisbury’s roadside hostelries.

The water meadows system became obsolete by the mid 19th century, but at Harnham it lingered on into the early 20th century. Now the Harnham Water Meadows Trust, with the support of the dean and chapter of the cathedral, have been reintroducing ‘floating’ or ‘drowning’ to several areas. You can still see the remains of the old ditches, drains, and the little hay cart bridges in the fields. Nature also benefits from keeping this old practice alive, and the whole area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its value as a wetland habitat.

The old town centre has streets with names like Salt Lane and Blue Boar Street; along with many surviving half-timbered inns and shops fronts, they humanise what is otherwise a busy modern townscape. Salisbury was a planned town – rather than one that grew organically – designed in the 13th century to be the ecclesiastical and mercantile hub of the area. The pre-eminence of the bishops as the leader of the creation of ‘New Sarum’ – leaving the old town, Old Sarum, to decay up on the hill - accounts for the spacious Cathedral Close, which is the largest in England. The buildings that surround the Close have largely Georgian frontages, often concealing older structures. The Rifles Museum, which houses the collection of the Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiments, dates back to the 13th century. Mompesson House, owned by the National Trust and open in the spring and summer months, is a fine example of Queen Anne architecture.

In the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, along with its Pitt-Rivers Collection, you find – in one rather dark gallery – the rather eerie 12ft figure of The Salisbury Giant looming above you, dressed in a long woollen robe. He symbolises the cloth trade, from which the city derived so much of its wealth for centuries; dating back to the 1400s, he was wheeled out every year at Guild pageants. Nearby are some gorgeous Turner watercolours of the cathedral, which lies adjacent to the museum.

What can be said of this building that has not been said before? The spire is the highest in the country, a miraculous construction that soars to 404ft above foundations a mere 6ft into the ground. Although it dates from the 14th century, the remainder of the building is a rarity among British cathedrals in its stylistic unity, owing to the fact that it was built within a concentrated span of forty years from the 1220s. This accounts for its much-admired harmonious profile.

Given the unusually generous proportions of the Cathedral Close, at Salisbury you have opportunities to admire the building from all sides – unlike so many cathedrals which rise up abruptly around street corners, or are hemmed in by inadequately sized squares. Ironically, for all this, you’d have to say that this is a building that looks better seen from afar, back on the meadows, than in close up. There’s remarkable plainness about the stonework as you wander around the north side for instance, and the absence of fine sculpture is noticeable.

The interior can be a let down, too. Light floods in, and it somehow lacks the mysterious, subliminal feel so often present in Gothic cathedrals. There are some fine tombs lining the nave, however, and the choir stalls are the earliest surviving in Britain. The beautiful cloisters afford an appealing alternative view of the spire, and the walls of the chapter house are decorated with a carved frieze with scenes from the Old Testament, a brilliant example of medieval sculpture. It is here, too, that you find the best preserved, most legible of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta.

If you love history, you’ll need little excuse to pay Salisbury a visit, but if you want one, 2008 is the 750th anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral in 1258. A rich array of commemorative events is planned, including an exhibition in the cloisters from 26 April to 30 September.

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