Lonely Planet has chosen Salisbury as one of its top 10 cities of the world to visit in 2015. The city celebrates the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015 – the cathedral will be displaying its copy, considered to be the best of the original documents.
It’s less than a year since the new visitor centre opened at Stonehenge, just 10 miles out of town, transforming the visitor experience there. And there are strong hints that chancellor George Osborne may give the go-ahead to putting the A303,,which runs within a few hundred yards of the stones, in a tunnel in his autumn statement.
This lucky Southern England city boasts another (unofficial) wonder of the world: you see the soaring 404 feet high spire of Salisbury Cathedral from afar. It is the oldest, and tallest, in England.
There is a third piece of good fortune. The artist Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows” – it is depicted under a stormy sky and a vivid rainbow, looking across the River Avon – was saved for the nation in 2013 and will always be on show somewhere in the UK. (Let’s add a fourth – the Salisbury Museum’s Wessex Gallery of Archaeology, which opened in 2014.)
Until recently I would have recommended Salisbury as an easy day trip, particularly if you are travelling from, say, London by train. Now I’m not so sure. The new presentation of Stonehenge has changed that. You need longer. Set aside half a day for that visit alone.
A new visitor centre, is well out of sight of the monument, opened in 2013, and I think it has succeeded in its purpose, to “restore the dignity” of the monument. The spacious centre, which makes no architectural reference to the stones, and is more like the structure of Woodhenge, has a big exhibition space with a “virtual” Stonehenge (where you actually get to walk inside the “stones”), On display are 250 prehistoric objects – many previously unseen, and a reconstruction of an early Neolithic man.
In terms of sharpening anticipation and heightening awareness, the visitor centre is admirable. They gradually come into view, those grey, gaunt stones, massive and mysterious, as you climb the hill, either on foot or in a land train or shuttle bus. You will arrive at the stones well-informed, although they still keep their secret.
People have gazed in awe at this baffling circle of stones for 3500 years. It was built without Lottery money, and probably on time and to budget too. And now there are fresh proposals to complete the job of enhancing its setting, by burying the entire A303, which still runs close to the stones, in a tunnel. www.english-heritage.org.uk
I recommend visiting Stonehenge first: it would be a pity to tear yourself away if you find you are pressed for time. The stones of a roaring success, but there are other, important things to see back in the city. If you have a car, there’s more to see in the hinterland, as well as in Salisbury.
2015 will be the year of Magna Carta, one of the world’s most revered ancient documents. This cornerstone of English liberty, law and democracy, with an enduring worldwide legacy, is 800 years old in 2015. There are actually four surviving original documents, signed, sworn and sealed on the banks of the Thames in 1215. (There are many more surviving copies made around the time.)
Salisbury Cathedral owns the best preserved of them (the British library has two copies and Lincoln Cathedral the other one). In anniversary year the cathedral will display the parchment, “76 lines of text, written in iron gall ink in Latin, in a neat business hand” according to the UNESCO citation, in a new exhibition in the newly-conserved Chapter House. Other celebration events include a Medieval fair, a gala concert and a week-long flower festival. www.salisburycathedral.org.uk.
There are few high-rise buildings in the world as delicate, inspiring and awesomely beautiful as Salisbury Cathedral. One of our finest cathedral, it was built, entirely in one style, Early English Gothic, in just 38 years, which is swift by mediaeval standards. Then, 600 years before the first skyscraper, they added the spire. Sir Christopher Wren was alarmed at a 27 inch tilt in the top, but it hasn”t budged since his day.
They offer conducted tours to the top of the spire for one of the most exciting views in Britain. If you prefer the deep serenity of ground level, the nave contains what is claimed to be the world’s oldest clock, dating from 1386. If you stay the night, do find time to walk through the cathedral precinct to see it in its floodlit glory.
In 2013 there was great news about possibly the finest painting made of the building, Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows” – depicted under a stormy sky and a vivid rainbow, looking across the River Avon. The artist considered it one of his best. In 2013 the work was saved from possible sale abroad when the Tate bought it for £23 million, in partnership with four regional galleries. From now on it will be on “almost constant” view across the UK. www.tate.org.uk
Very close to the cathedral, in Cathedral Close, is Mompesson House, one of a shining string of National Trust properties along the A303 on the way to the West Country. (The others are Stourhead, with a great walk around the formal gardens. Montacute and Barrington Court.) Mompesson had a starring role in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility, alongside Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant.
This is a perfectly proportioned Queen Anne house with some fine features, including magnificent plasterwork and period furniture and a graceful oak staircase. The Turnbull collection of 18th-century drinking glasses is the largest owned by the National Trust. The 400 pieces, ranging from delicate cordial glasses with air-twist stems to huge goblets, was assembled by the precocious tennis and golf star Captain Oswald Turnbull In the early 1900s. www.nationaltrust.org.uk
Another splendid new facility in the city is the Salisbury Museum’s Wessex Gallery of Archaeology, which opened in 2014 It contains Europe’s most extensive collection of Stonehenge and prehistoric artifacts. Not unreasonably we can see Salisbury Museum as one of the world’s leading galleries on the Stonehenge era.
On display are many objects, some of them found very recently, recounting the mathematical genius of the ancient Britons and Beaker people, who built and venerated Stonehenge and its hinterland in a belief system we still don’t understand. One outstanding exhibit is the Amesbury Archer, a 2300 BC Bronze Age man found when they cleared ground for a new school here in 2002. Among his possessions are Britain’s oldest gold objects. The C9th Warminster Jewel was found in 1997, and the Wardour Hoard, with many fabulous pieces from 2000-800 BC, was uncovered in 2011. www.salisburymuseum.org.uk
Wander the evocatively named old streets and lanes — Oatmeal Row, Ox Row, Fish Row and Butchers Row – and it is possible to imagine yourself deep down in history. Or, for full mediaeval immersion, simply head for the Haunch of Venison, one of the city”s top restaurants, so old (circa 1320) it is practically off the timeline.
The enormous oak beams are older still, thought to come from early sailing vessels. The building rambles like some absent-minded old deacon. Wander around and you could end up anywhere. You might be on the only licensed landing in Britain. Or in a bar with an ancient pewter counter. Or next to a working fireplace dating from 1588. Or in a snug where they think Churchill and Eisenhower planned D-Day.
The craftsmen working on the Cathedral spire used to stay here, popping out to pray in the Church of St Thomas Becket, said to have been built for them in 1219. Its most notable feature is the remarkable doom painting, dating from 1475, which depicts Christ on the Day of Judgement, astride a rainbow flanked by visions of Heaven and Hell.
Then there’s a splendid walk across the meadows where the Avon and the Nadder meander in elegant loops. Look back to the cathedral for one of the most majestic aspects in any British city.
Also on Lonely Planet list of the top 10 world cities are: Washington DC, El Chalten in Argentina, Milan, Zermatt, Valletta in Malta, Plovdiv in Bulgaria, Vienna, Chennai in India and Toronto.