Salisbury

In the fourth of our new series exploring Britain’s urban areas, Tom Evans discovers much more hidden heritage than at first meets the eye in the magnificent medieval city of Salisbury.

Shop fronts in Salisbury high street

Shop fronts in Salisbury high street

There are not too many cities that retain most of their original layout, buildings and feel and certainly not if they are functional, thriving 21st century places, rather than simply historical treasures. Salisbury manages to play both roles, although it is sometimes on a knife-edge in balancing the old and the modern.
Blessed with a magnificent cathedral, the spire of which dominates the city, it is sometimes a shame that this can overshadow the significant interest that lies in the rest of the destination. Likewise, neighbouring Stonehenge, remarkable though it is, can be a temptation away from spending more time to enjoy Salisbury itself.

The view across Salisbury from the cathedral tower.

The view across Salisbury from the cathedral tower.

The city came into being, on its current site, in about the year 1217 when the Bishop decided to move his seat two miles south from a hill fort, known as Old Sarum. Streets were laid out in a grid pattern, known as chequers, to create a medieval model town. The new settlement grew rapidly and a number of buildings and complexes were built throughout the 13th and 14th century, some of which still stand today. Its main industry was making wool cloth, exported through Southampton, and this helped Salisbury grow into one of the largest towns in England by the 15th century. The wool trade played an important role in shaping the city up to he 18th century, though sadly there is little evidence of this today. The industrial revolution, which transformed much of Britain, largely passed Salisbury by and is perhaps the reason why it remained a market town and retains its medieval layout. Today Salisbury is a small, but pleasant city with a relaxed feel. It has a large amount of independent shops, plenty of character and more than enough attractions to fill a varied one or two-day itinerary.

Salisbury’s historic centre

Salisbury’s historic centre

Whilst Salisbury is situated in southern England’s rural heartland, it is well connected to the rest of the country by rail and road links. Those travelling to the city by coach can make use of the designated coach park, which is located a short walk from the centre, or the drop-off and pick-up point in St John Street, just outside the Cathedral Close. The city prides itself on being a coach-friendly destination and even produces a coach drivers’ guide and employs a coach ambassador during the summer months. There are regular train services to London, Bristol and Bath from the city, and the station is a short walk from the centre.
Salisbury is a compact city and the majority of its many attractions are well within walking distance of the centre. Perhaps more than in most places, a great deal of its treasures are well hidden and the best way for those looking to uncover its riches is to organise a walking tour with a Blue Badge Guide. Tours can be arranged to cover a variety of experiences, from general city introductions to tailored tours, and details of some of the options are noted in the box opposite.
There are also a number of walking routes available in and around the city and The Salisbury and Wilton Walking Map, developed by the Salisbury Walking Forum, is a good resource and is available in leaflet form. As part of the Constable exhibition in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, a themed walking trail is being planned to take in some of the views that are included in his work.

The Coach Park at Millstream Approach.

The Coach Park at Millstream Approach.

Perhaps the best place to start a group tour is from the Coach Park at Millstream Approach, where an adjoining pub, the Boat House, provides a good spot to gather and enjoy some refreshments. There is a large room available at the pub to hire and GTOs should enquire well in advance to book this and any group meals.
From the coach park, a pathway runs alongside the River Avon to the Maltings, a shopping area at the western edge of the city centre. As with other more modern shopping areas in Salisbury, the Maltings has been carefully developed within the original historic structure and is almost hidden from view of most streets. The precinct is, though, a fairly pleasant place to wander and shop, while the river provides the main focal point.
Leaving the Maltings through a covered passage that runs alongside the library, you will have your first impression of the medieval city in the Market Place, an open area surrounded by an eclectic mix of historic buildings ranging from the 13th to the 20th century. King Henry III granted the right to hold a market in Salisbury in its charter of 1227 and it remains an important part of city life today. The famous Charter Market is held outdoors every Tuesday and Saturday and GTOs should consider planning a trip to coincide with market days to sample its noisy, bustling and colourful offer. Produce from local farms is also available in the farmers’ section. The Market Place is due to be enhanched in the next few years, as part of the city’s regeneration programme, ‘Salisbury Vision’, and has the potential to become a fabulous civic space, especially if street clutter and current parking provision on non market days are removed.

Charter Market

Charter Market

Around the Market Place are some of Salisbury’s finest buildings, and also down the adjacent roads. The church of St Thomas, located beside the market square, was the first to be built in the city and would have served the workmen building the cathedral. Originally constructed in the first half of the 13th century, the whole body of the church was remodelled in the late 15th century when a Doom painting of the Last Judgement was completed over the Chancel Arch. The painting, which shows Christ seated on a rainbow, was restored in the 19th century after it had been whitewashed over during the Reformation and is one of the biggest in England. The church is well worth a visit for the Doom painting alone, but offers much more as a fascinating historic building and a good place to gather for a talk if on a guided tour.

The Haunch of Venison.

The Haunch of Venison.

Situated just behind the church is a fascinating example of a 14th century building, the wonderful Haunch of Venison pub. Though a bit small to accommodate a large group, it is worth passing to view its historic features. The present three-story building is mainly 15th century, however the first record of the Haunch of Venison is from 1320 when the building was used to house craftsmen working on the cathedral spire. The pub contains some rare wooden carved elevated arches and, in the House of Lords room, a mummified hand, discovered in the 19th century and believed to have belonged to a cheating card player.
A short distance from the inn stands a 15th century stone market cross. It would have originally been at the centre of the market and marked the section where poultry trading took place. Used as a shelter for traders in the past, it serves the same function for shoppers and visitors today.
Opposite the Market Place is the Guildhall, which at the time of writing was undergoing considerable refurbishment. Designed by the architect Sir Robert Taylor and built between 1769 and 1787, the building replaced the medieval Bishops Guildhall, which was located on the same site. Alterations, including the addition of the Grand Jury Room, were made to the building in 1829, and following its latest work, it will host touring exhibitions and community events.

Salisbury Map

Salisbury Map

Close by on Bridge Street is the old County Hotel, now called the Kings Head Inn and operated as a Wetherspoons pub and lodge. The imposing three-storey building was built in 1874 for the wine and spirit importers, the Richardson Brothers, and is a good place to stop for a drink or some food. Further along the street is a clock tower built in 1892 on the site of the old city gaol. The stone structure has a carving of manacles on one side and a plaque on another dedicating the tower to Arabella, the wife of a Dr Roberts who had the clock built in her memory.
Moving along to Blue Boar Row, a plaque on the wall of a quirky Debenhams made up of several earlier buildings, marks the place where, in 1485, the Duke of Buckingham was executed for treason against King Richard III. As with many buildings in Salisbury, remnants of older parts, or in some cases whole buildings, can be found by venturing inside. The department store was originally the Saracens Head, before becoming the Blue Boar Inn, and the shop’s café, on the second floor, retains the original features of the 15th century inn.
Another well preserved building that is functioning as a modern retail unit can be found on Queen Street. Cotswold Outdoor, a clothing and camping store, was once the home of the wool merchant and six times mayor of Salisbury, John A’Port. Built in 1425, the building is a fine example of a half-timbered house and retains many original features including fireplaces, beams and exposed wattle-and-daub walls.

The Red Lion Hotel.

The Red Lion Hotel.

Along Milford Street is The Red Lion Hotel, topped by a huge stone lion, a coaching inn dating back to the 13th century and believed to be the oldest purpose-built hotel in Britain. The building housed draughtsmen during the construction of the cathedral and became popular with commercial travellers journeying along the route between London and Exeter during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Visitors today will find original 13th century features, an attractive 18th century frontage and a pleasant courtyard complete with a hanging creeper that is believed to be one of the oldest specimens in Europe.
A short distance away on New Canal is where the city’s cinema can be found. Once The Hall of John Halle, it is now an Odeon and is a great place to visit, even for those with no interest in seeing a film. The fake Tudor frontage is little to get excited about, but step inside the foyer and you will be greeted by a 15th century merchant’s hall complete with high arched ceilings and stained glass windows. The building was restored by the famous architect and designer AW Pugin in 1834 and was converted into a cinema in 1931. The venue is unique in character and many period features continue into some of the five screen theatres.
The Old George Mall, with entrances on four streets, is Salisbury’s main pedestrian shopping precinct and, as with the Maltings, is a modern construction sympathetically integrated into the city’s historic environment. Built in 1965, the mall houses around 40 shops and was named after the Old George Inn, which still stands, in part, at the High Street end of the precinct. The Inn, now The Boston Tea Party, dates from 1364 and it is well worth taking a coffee or lunch break there to see its wonderful interior. Shakespeare, Cromwell, Pepys and later Buddy Holly are reported to have visited or stayed in the Inn and it is even featured in H.G. Wells’s novel, ‘The Secret Places of the Heart’.

St Ann Gate

St Ann Gate

Walking towards the cathedral along High Street brings you to St Ann Gate, which leads to the Cathedral Close. The incredible cathedral obviously dominates this area and is detailed on the page overleaf, but you should allow plenty of time to enjoy the other attractions the close has to offer.
On entering the Cathedral Close, groups could take a right turn along the Choristers to visit Mompesson House. The elegant 18th century house featured in the award-winning 1995 film Sense and Sensibility and visitors will be taken back into a past world, where magnificent plasterwork, fine period furniture and a graceful oak staircase form the main features of this perfectly proportioned Queen Anne house. The building also houses the Turnbull collection of 18th century drinking glasses, which is of national importance, and boasts a delightful walled garden with traditionally planted herbaceous borders. The building is owned by The National Trust and is open from mid March to late October.

Mompesson House

Mompesson House

A short distance away, along the West Walk, is the Rifles Museum, which tells the story of the Infantry of Berkshire and Wiltshire. The small, but pleasant museum houses displays of uniforms, medals, aspects of a soldier’s life and regiment campaigns.
The museum also has yearly temporary exhibitions on different themes; the theme for 2011 focuses on soldiers’ innovative ideas and inventions. The collection is housed in the Wardrobe, which in itself is an attraction, having been used as a clothing and document store by bishops in the 14th century. In the summer months, visitors can enjoy the beautiful riverside garden with views of the famous water meadows and Salisbury Cathedral. Guided tours are available to groups, which can be tailored to specific needs, and rooms are available to hire. The museum is open from February to November and there are group discounts on the entry fee.

The Rifles Museum

The Rifles Museum

On the same side of the close, based in the King’s House, is the Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum. It is the designated museum for Stonehenge and its exhibits span the history and archaeology of Salisbury and surrounding areas. Some wonderful finds from excavations at the UNESCO World Heritage Site can be found here, but perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most unusual, exhibit is the drainage collection – an incredible assortment of medieval finds recovered from the old water channels that ran through the city. The museum is not that easy to navigate, but it is worth spending an hour or two here to explore some of its hidden gems. The 12-foot high Salisbury Giant and his companion, the Hob-Nob, which were used during processions through the city from the 1400s until the 1970s, are certainly worth seeking out. As part of its temporary exhibitions programme, the museum will be hosting a major exhibition of Constable’s paintings of Salisbury from 20th May to 25th September this year. Customised exhibition and ‘behind the scenes’ tours of the building and archive are offered to groups and meetings rooms and a lecture hall are available to hire.
Further to the west of the city and cathedral are the Harnham Water Meadows, a surviving part of the irrigation system once widespread across the Wessex chalkland and now a site of special scientific interest. The Town Path runs through the centre of the meadows, from Mill Road, and a short walk along it will allow groups to see the abundant flora and fauna and get a view of the cathedral as painted by Constable. The path leads straight to the Old Mill Hotel and Restaurant, which dates from the 12th century and was formerly used as a paper mill.

Harnham Water Meadows

Harnham Water Meadows

Groups wishing to discover the story of the original Salisbury could take a walk two miles north of where the city lies today, to Old Sarum. The Iron Age hill fort has been used by Romans, Normans and Saxons and was where the first cathedral stood. Its ruins, and that of a castle and royal palace, can be found on the site, while the fort’s 5,000 year history is told through graphic interpretation panels. Visitors can enjoy the fantastic views across the Wiltshire countryside and make use of a shop, operated by English Heritage, which sells refreshments and gifts.
With so much to see and do, GTOs may like to consider an overnight stay in Salisbury and there are plenty of hotel options to choose from. Milford Hall Hotel and The Cathedral Hotel, close to the city centre, are well used to catering for groups and Visit Wiltshire produces a very informative guide for groups that features a list of hotel capacities.

Salisbury City Guides

Elizabeth Keatinge

Elizabeth Keatinge

Elizabeth Keatinge was the extremely knowledgeable guide who took the author on his tour of Salisbury. Elizabeth is part of a collective of Blue Badges Guides working in Salisbury and the surrounding areas.
The Salisbury City Guides offer a broad range of walks and tours, which can be tailored to specific needs. The guides welcome enquiries from groups needing a special service to accommodate disability, to cater for a particular interest, or to enhance an existing itinerary. Bespoke tours include Chequers Walks, John Constable Walk, In the Footsteps of Pitt, Inns and Ale Houses, Clocks, Close Walks, Wilton Town Walks and City and Ghost Walks. Many of the guides also give talks on specialist subjects to clubs, societies and other special interest groups.

For more information or to arrange a tour call 07873 212941, email:info@salisburycityguides.co.uk or visit www.salisburycityguides.co.uk