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SALISBURY , huddled below Wiltshire's chalky plain in the converging valleys of the Avon and Nadder, looks from a distance very much as it did when Constable painted his celebrated view of it from across the water meadows. Prosperous and well-kept, Wiltshire's only city is designed on a pleasantly human scale, with no sprawling suburbs or high-rise buildings to challenge the supremacy of the cathedral's immense spire.

The town sprang into existence in the early thirteenth century, when the bishopric was moved from Old Sarum , an ancient Iron Age hillfort settled by the Romans and their successors. The deserted remnant of Salisbury's precursor now stands on the northern fringe of the town, just a bit closer in than Wilton House to the west, one of Wiltshire's great .

Begun in 1220, Salisbury Cathedral (June-Aug Mon-Sat 7.15am-8.15pm, Sun 7.15am-6.15pm; Sept-May daily 7am-6.15pm; £3.50 suggested donation) was mostly completed within forty years and is thus unusually consistent in its style, with one extremely prominent exception - the spire , which was added a century later and at 404ft is the highest in England. Its survival is something of a miracle, for the foundations penetrate only about six feet into a gravel bed in the middle of the floodplain, and when Christopher Wren surveyed it he found the spire to be leaning almost two and a half feet out of true. The tie-rods inserted by Wren helped to arrest the problem for good.

The interior is over-austere after James Wyatt's brisk eighteenth-century tidying, but there's an amazing sense of space and light in its high nave, despite the sombre pillars of grey Purbeck marble, which are visibly bowing beneath the weight they bear. Monuments and carved tombs line the walls, where they were neatly placed by Wyatt, and in the north aisle there's a fascinating clock dating from 1386, one of the oldest functioning clock mechanisms in Europe. Other features not to miss are the vaulted colonnades of the cloisters , and the octagonal chapter house (June-Aug Mon-Sat 9.30am-7.45pm, Sun noon-5.30pm; rest of year Mon-Sat 9.30am-5.30pm, Sun noon-5.30pm), which displays the best preserved of only four surviving original editions of the Magna Carta, and whose walls are decorated with a frieze of scenes from the Old Testament. On most days, you can join a free 45-minute tour of the church leaving two or more times a day, and there are also tours to the roof and spires.

Surrounding the cathedral is the Close , the largest and most impressive in the country, a peaceful precinct of lawns and mellow old buildings. Most of the houses have seemly Georgian facades, though some, like the Bishop's Palace and the deanery, date from the thirteenth century. Mompesson House (April-Oct Mon-Wed, Sat & Sun noon-5.30pm; £3.90; garden only 80p; NT), built by a wealthy merchant in 1701, is a fine example of a Queen Anne house and contains some beautifully furnished eighteenth-century rooms and a superbly carved staircase, as displayed to great effect in the film Sense and Sensibility ; the entry price includes a thirty-minute guided tour. The other building to head for in the Close is the King's House , in which you'll find the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum (July & Aug Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 2-5pm) - an absorbing account of local history. It includes a good section on Stonehenge and also focuses on the life and times of General Pitt-Rivers, the father of modern archeology, who excavated many of Wiltshire's prehistoric sites, including Avebury.

The Close's North Gate opens onto the centre's older streets, where narrow pedestrianized alleyways bear such names as Fish Row and Salt Lane, indicative of their trading origin. Many half-timbered houses and inns have survived all over the centre, and the last of four market crosses, Poultry Cross , stands on stilts in Silver Street, near the Market Square. The market, held on Tuesdays and Saturdays, still serves a large agricultural area, as it did in earlier times when the city grew wealthy on wool. Nearby, the church of St Thomas - named after Thomas à Becket - is worth a look inside for its carved timber roof and "Doom painting" over the chancel arch, depicting Christ presiding over the Last Judgement. Dating from 1475, it's the largest of its kind in England.

Lastly, to best appreciate the city's inspiring silhouette - the view made famous by Constable - take a twenty-minute walk through the water meadows southwest of the centre to HARNHAM ; the Old Mill here serves drinks and modestly priced meals.

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