Salisbury Cathedral gets most of the press, but Salisbury has more than just the Cathedral to offer visitors.
The Cathedral was begun in 1220, and finished, with the exception of the tower and spire, in 1258. Ah, that spire. Constable painted it, and generations of artists with paintbrush or camera have attempted to capture its beauty rising above the water meadows of the River Avon.
At 404 feet, it is the tallest spire in England, a fact known by most schoolchildren. What is not so well known is that the medieval builders of the spire accomplished their masterpiece with foundations only 5 to 6 feet deep in the wet ground to take the strain of 6400 tonnes.
Because of that wet ground, the cathedral has been subject to structural stress over the centuries. In 1668 Sir Christopher Wren was called on to survey the spire. Wren found that it was leaning nearly 30 inches out of plumb, and had iron tie-rods inserted to brace it. When Wren's braces were replaced some two hundred years later, measurements revealed that no further movement had occurred. It seems that Sir Christopher knew his trade.
The Cathedral is more than the spire, however. An old saying records that there are as many pillars as there are hours in the year, and as many windows as there are days. Many of those pillars are made from beautiful, dark Purbeck Marble, which isn't actually marble but crystalline limestone, and isn't from Purbeck, but from Corfe Castle, Dorset.
The cathedral library houses an original copy of the Magna Carta, brought here by the William Longpre, Earl of Salisbury and half-brother to King John. Longpre is buried in the cathedral, the first person so honored.
In the nave you can see what is probably the oldest working mechanical clock in the world, dating to 1386. There are no hands and no clock face, rather, it rings a chime of bells every hour. It was originally built to call the bishops to services.
The Close, essentially a walled city within the city, is ringed by wonderful period houses. The most memorable houses in the Close are Mompesson House, a National Trust property finished in high Georgian style, and Malmesbury House, originally built in 1327, but later remodeled in Georgian fashion also.
The church of St. Thomas a Becket, a former "chapel of ease" for the cathedral, has a magnificent carved and paneled roof, and an organ donated by George III.
The Market Place has seen regular markets since 1227, and it used to be sprinkled with crosses which were centres for selling particular kinds of produce. Nowadays only the Poultry Cross remains.
The Market Square was the scene of the execution of the Duke of Buckingham in 1483. The Duke, in hiding from Richard III, was betrayed when a laborer noticed extra food being delivered to his hiding place.
St. Ann Street is home to beautiful, ivy-covered Georgian and Victorian houses, and the 14th century St. Ann's Gate offers the most scenic approach to the Cathedral Close. George Frederick Handel gave his first performance in England in a room above the Gate.
If you leave the city heading west instead of north you will quickly find yourself in Wilton, home of the well-known Wilton carpet works, and Wilton House, residence of the Earls of Pembroke. Wilton House is one of the most impressive stately homes in Britain, and well worth a visit.
Salisbury seems to have escaped the worst ravages of its popularity, and despite the tourists that throng the streets in summer, it retains a relaxed feeling. And the spire still rises over the water meadows that have changed surprisingly little since Constable painted the scene centuries ago.
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This legendary warrior supposedly led the British at the Battle of Mount Badon (c. 518)
His exploits were later popularized in a series of medieval romances
His legendary headquarters was Camelot
This Day in British History
23 May, 1208
Pope Innocent III places England under interdict (no church services)
King John strikes back by seizing all church property, though loyal clergy were allowed to buy their property back