A stunning hour-and-a-half train ride through the English countryside from London takes you to Salisbury, home of the famous Stonehenge as well as the Magna Carta. It’s an easy day trip, but I found that Salisbury has a lot to offer and, in fact, Stonehenge is the least impressive part of the town, making it worth at least a night’s stay.
Salisbury has been an important site throughout human history. Over 5,000 years ago, Neolithic man was dragging huge stones, weighing up to 55 tons from Wales to Salisbury to build Stonehenge. The area was a huge settlement and is now surrounded by ancient burial mounds and historical artifacts.
While Stonehenge is impressive and still one of the most important historical sites in human history, Salisbury itself is even more impressive. Beautifully preserved, this picturesque English country town offers a lot to do and will leave a far more lasting impression on me than Stonehenge.
Originally, “Old Sarum” (as the old town was called) was constructed and used by the Romans and early Saxons as a fortification. With the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the fort and cathedral were moved to the present-day location. The new city never had any defensive walls, as it’s surrounded by rivers on three sides and located on a hill.
The city has been immaculately preserved. During the German Blitz, Salisbury wasn’t bombed, as the Germans used its famous church as a waypoint during bombing runs and were under strict orders not to damage it. Around the city, one can see Elizabethan, Jacobin, and Victorian-style homes all squished together down tiny streets. The town market square is very well preserved, and outdoor cafes line the area. Here are some things to see and do in Salisbury:
(Chapter Office, 01722 555120, salisburycathedral.org.uk)
The highlight of this whole trip was Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral was built in 1238 and still stands, albeit with some adjustments, 750 years later. This huge Gothic cathedral is surrounded by grass and cloistered in a little community with a few smaller churches, homes, and other buildings. Of all the churches I’ve seen in Europe, this ranks as number one.
This church is laid out in the traditional cross-format with an entrance at one end and the prayer area at the other. Huge ceilings and large stained-glass windows adorn the sides, and the choir and seating area line the middle. What made this church really special were the tombs inside. The walls are lined with the tombs of dead bishops, kings, and queens. They are beautifully ordained in figures and symbols from the person’s life. In the Trinity, there is a tomb that dates back to 1099. Walking past the tombs of so many historical figures, including some that signed the Magna Carta, was breathtaking, especially to a history geek such as myself. The church also houses one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta left in existence.
The church is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm and Sunday from noon to 4pm.
Walk Around The Close
Salisbury cathedral is surrounded by 80 acres of land called the Cathedral Close. This is where you’ll find most of the museums and historic houses. At one side you can see the River Avon, while the rest of the complex is protected by ancient walls. The old bishop’s palace that is now the Cathedral School and Sarum College is located in a late 17th century house.
Markets were first held here in 1219 and the square is still filled with stores and sellers. You can pick up anything from fresh fish to discount watches. The narrow lanes surrounding the square are named after their medieval specialties: Oatmeal Row, Fish Row and Silver St. Visit the market on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8am to 4pm.
Located near Salisbury, this megalithic structure is over 3,000 years old and why most people visit the town. Scholars still are not sure how the builders got the stones all the way from Wales and have tried to replicate the feat, with dismal results. Moreover, we only have a vague idea of Stonehenge’s purpose (we’re basically just guessing). Stonehenge is now fenced off, and you can no longer go into the circle. Visitors can only walk around the attraction. But it’s worth visiting for the mystery behind it and an excellent and detailed audio tour. You can visit Stonehenge as early as 9:30am. Tickets start at 17.50 GBP.
How to get to Salisbury
Salisbury is approximately a 90-minute drive away from London and around 50 minutes from Portmouth, Poole and Southampton. There is direct train service from London as well as to Bath, Cardiff, Exeter, Southampton and Bristol. Buses run from Heathrow and Gatwick, taking 90 minutes and two hours respectively.
Book Your Trip to Salisbury: Logistical Tips and Tricks
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Note: This article was originally published in 2008.