Salisbury: a medieval masterpiece

Date Posted: 18/07/2012

Carrie Martindale sampled some of the delights of Salisbury and the surrounding area.

“Van Morrison’s slept in that bed,” isn’t one of the first things you expect to hear after arrival at a destination, but so it was at Milford Hall Hotel in Salisbury, proud recent recipient of its fourth AA star.

The bed in question was in one of the hotel’s suites (of course), which combine traditional period features and quirky elements (like the trompe l’oeil concealed door to the bathroom) with modern functionality.

However, it wasn’t my fate to stay in Van’s sleeping quarters; and I was shown to the modern part of the hotel and a spacious executive room.

The hotel’s original frontage conceals a substantial extension, and has 45 rooms in total. Its function room can accommodate up to 120 people – and I saw the hotel deal well with a large group first-hand, as a wedding party was there during my stay.

Salisbury Cathedral and the Magna Carta

VisitWiltshire had given me a great start to the weekend, by arranging a tour of Salisbury Cathedral and the Magna Carta; a place of worship and pilgrimage for nearly 800 years.

The imposing structure of the cathedral is the landmark of Salisbury; those dreaming spires of Oxford have competition with this singular 400-foot edifice – supposedly Britain’s tallest spire.

Options include a self-guided tour of the ground floor using the pocket tour book available, which takes around an hour, or a guided tour with one of the volunteer guides, which can include a jaunt up into the tower.

The Tower Tour

The maximum group travel size for a tower tour is 12 people, but if you have a larger number then the tours can be staggered –  just make sure you telephone in advance to give the cathedral time to organise.

Of particular note on the ground floor of the cathedral is a stunning baptismal font by the artist William Pye. As a modern piece (2008), it fits in with the cathedral’s ethos – constantly evolving to attract visitors with new angles and events, a recent gig by the band Jethro Tull being one of those.

The tower tour takes you up-and-up-and UP to explore the cathedral’s roof spaces, walk above the vaulting and climb to the top of the tower through narrow spiral staircases. If you can manage it, the view is simply breathtaking.

The Magna Carta

The cathedral also houses one of the four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. Although it already has a good display area, the cathedral plans to improve the experience for its 800th anniversary in 2015. Group travel organisers should bear in mind that it can be extremely busy.

After a walk in the cloisters and refreshment in the cathedral’s beautiful glass-roofed tea shop, we sat for some of the day’s Evensong; an atmospheric and moving experience and a reminder that this is not just a heritage attraction; it’s a living and working church.

Eateries and taverns

We thought it would be rude not to sample a couple of the half-timbered taverns that line the streets of the city, so over the course of the weekend we did. Of note were The Coach & Horses, a 13th century coaching inn, and The Chough (same period) both of which cater for large groups.

The Chough

To digress, we ate at The Chough on the Saturday evening. The food was good, honest pub grub and the portions enormous. We were also treated to an impromptu tour of this supposedly haunted establishment, including the old dungeons which were once used to hold prisoners awaiting their fate in the market place.

New manager Andy has big plans for the place, and he showed us a spook-tacularly large upstairs area which they currently use for large gatherings including a suckling pig banquet. It’s a good job we weren’t frightened easily as Andy recounted more scary tales of hidden rooms and spectral footsteps.

The Lazy Cow

Less frightening, unless you happen to be a vegetarian, was our venue on the Friday night, The Lazy Cow, just around the corner from the cathedral.

Bedecked with bovine by-products of all descriptions, this non-imposing restaurant and small hotel has a cosy feel, and was reassuringly busy when we ventured inside.

Not surprisingly considering its name and decor, the restaurant is primarily a steakhouse and its meat comes from award-winning butcher Jack O’Shea. The food was superb – as my companion put it: “Best steak I have ever had”.

The rainy weather meant that a couple of activities were unfortunately cancelled, including a rather blood-curdling evening ghost walk of the town and the ever-so popular Salisbury Races. I even missed out on a concert at said racecourse from a top Michael Jackson impersonator, Navi. Sad times indeed.

Cathedral Close – a wealth of places to visit

As I discovered first hand, Salisbury is a great area to visit on a rainy day because there is a plethora of indoor attractions, all within walking distance; none more so than the five located in the Cathedral Close.

Basically next door to each other, are the following:

• Salisbury Cathedral and the Magna Carta.
• The Rifles Museum – a military history museum and historic house.
• Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum – a medieval house holding a large collection of Stonehenge artefacts and local historical pieces.
• Mompesson House – a Queen Anne townhouse, well-know for its period furniture, run by the National Trust.
• Edward Heath’s former residence, Arundells.

Of note was our tour of Arundells by one of the late Edward Heath’s security personnel, Peter, now one of the guides. It’s a great opportunity to see a stunning property, dating back to the 13th century and gain an insight into the character of the former PM. The house is open to group visits, but these must be booked in advance.

Arundells holds Sir Edward’s personal art collection, sailing and musical memorabilia, and has a homely lived-in aspect, as it has been kept as it was when he was alive. Peter is full of anecdotes about the man and his house, including the wealth of celebrity Sunday luncheon guests whom Sir Edward liked to entertain.

Stonehenge

Luckily, the gods were shining down on me for my Sunday morning jaunt to Stonehenge and it had finally stopped raining. The English Heritage attraction is a short-drive out of Salisbury and is well equipped for coach parties, as we discovered when we arrived alongside 400 Italian students.

There are a couple of things that hit you when you get to this 5,000 year-old structure; one is its sheer immensity, which I was surprised by, and the other is the amount of people that are there: this is an attraction that sees over a million visitors a year.

It’s certainly worth a visit however. An informative complimentary audio guide (available in ten languages) gives an insight into the history and mystery of the structure, and if you could take away all of the Italian students snapping photos of themselves giving the thumbs-up, then the atmosphere would be really something.

What a weekend. I had a wonderful time in this seemingly ancient and mysterious area, despite the elements being against me. Would I go back? Most definitely.

For further group travel information visit www.visitwiltshire.co.uk.

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