SALISBURY, huddled below Wiltshire’s chalky plain in the converging valleys of the Avon and Nadder, sprang into existence in the early thirteenth century, when the bishopric was moved from nearby Old Sarum. Today, it looks from a distance very much as it did when Constable painted his celebrated view of it, and though traffic may clog its centre, this prosperous and well-kept 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 city’s inspiring silhouette is best admired by taking a twenty-minute walk through the water meadows southwest of the centre to the suburb of Harnham.
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Salisbury CathedralBegun in 1220, Salisbury Cathedral was mostly completed within forty years and is thus unusually consistent in its style, with one 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 6ft into marshy ground, and when Christopher Wren surveyed it he found the spire to be leaning almost 2.5ft out of true. He added further tie rods, which finally arrested the movement.
The interior is over-austere, 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. Don’t miss the octagonal chapter house, which displays a rare original copy of the Magna Carta, and whose walls are decorated with a frieze of scenes from the Old Testament.
Surrounding the cathedral is the Close, 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, built by a wealthy merchant in 1701, contains some beautifully furnished eighteenth-century rooms and a superbly carved staircase. Also in the Close is the King’s House, home to the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum – an absorbing account of local history.