Exploring England 2012 - around Salisbury, Part 2

Wednesday, Nov 14, 2012 at 20:45


Showers greeted us next morning, but not enough to change the plan for the day, which was for a trip to Bath. This was a most attractive if rather hilly city with colourful gardens and buildings, some dating back to Roman times, built of attractive honey coloured limestone.

Finding a parking spot was a bit tricky, but once parked we used a lull between showers to have a walk around the city. Climbing up from the river with its ancient bridge we came to the Circus, a full circle of colonnaded Georgian houses facing into a circular grassed area dominated by 3 huge plane trees – superb in its uniformity and subtle decorative touches. Further up the hill is the Royal Crescent where the houses were similar but larger and beautifully proportioned. They overlook a large park and on a clear day would have wonderful views over the tree tops.

Our day was by now anything but clear – it was raining steadily and a visit to the Roman baths seemed timely as a way to get out of the rain. Unfortunately every other tourist in town seemed to have the same idea, so even the ticket office had a sauna-like atmosphere from the long queue of damp tourists.

Inside was very crowded, and rather than going straight to the baths we were unexpectedly corralled through the museum – with lots of informative and interesting exhibits, but on this day jam-packed with damp, distracted tourists all intent on their audio guides, so there was much bumping and jostling. In such a press of bodies it was hard to see the exhibit numbers, hard to see the exhibits, and very noisy – not a wonderful experience. There were also many steps, some unexpected, and in that dimly lit space they added a feeling of insecurity. Finally it was all too much and with some difficulty we made our way through the crowds to the actual baths where we were able to find a seat and regain our composure a bit.

Now that we were able to look around we could see that these baths were part of a vast complex, with several pools and rooms that were kept at different temperatures. The main pool was once covered over but is now open to the sky. Even so, mist rose steadily from the hot spring water that feeds the pools.

Leaving Bath we decided to head towards home via a couple of other local attractions. Bradford-on-Avon was a lovely hilly town with narrow winding streets and buildings of stone similar to those in Bath. There we saw the old Tithe Barn, built about 1350 and used to store the produce (grain etc) paid as tithes or taxes. This barn was 51 metres long and 17m wide. The walls were sandstone and huge beams and trusses spanned the whole to support a slate roof. This was a most impressive building, especially as we could easily see how those early builders went about their craft.

We then learned that there was a Saxon church nearby, said to be the oldest such church in England, so, the rain having stopped we set out on a walk to find it. It was a lovely walk which took us past some colourful gardens and ancient stone walls. Finally, with some directions from friendly locals we found the church, which may have been built in the 700s or a bit later. It was very small, but tall and impressive in its simplicity, with sparse decoration – and still in use as the lady arranging flowers there confirmed. A nearby medieval church, much larger and very ornate emphasised the difference in building styles.

We had to cross over the river to get back to our car, which prompted us to take a road that ran beside the river through a leafy green tunnel of trees now in full leaf. This took us to a spot where a canal crossed over the river Avon on a viaduct. Just as we arrived a narrow boat was crossing over, before joining several others moored along the canal. I think at that moment we felt very “Wind-in-the-Willowish” and, like Mr Toad, fell under the spell of canals and narrow boats. We chatted to an American woman with young children who was spending a week in a narrow boat and really enjoying the relaxed pace – and they had no previous boating experience. Definitely something for the bucket list.

As we arrived home the wind was rising, and the forecast for tomorrow was for very strong winds. The next morning was indeed wild, wet and windy and we were tempted to stay put – which we did for a while until the weather eased mid morning and our planned trip into Salisbury seemed possible. Once there the rain did clear away enough for us to have a good look around the streets of Salisbury where many different architectural styles sit happily side by side.

After lunch we made our way to the Cathedral, guided by that famous needle spire, the tallest in Britain. The front is quite lavishly adorned, though we later learned that many of the statues are recent copies of old or damaged originals. The cloisters were elegant, as was the relatively sparsely ornamented interior. An unusual feature is a modern font crafted from very smooth water-covered rock, creating wonderful reflections – until someone had to stick their finger in the water. There are plenty of tombs, small side-chapels, a beautiful “quire” and wonderful stained glass.

The organ was having some maintenance done and was being tuned so we heard it, briefly, in action. In the beautiful Chapter House – no photos permitted – one of 4 original copies of Magna Carta is on display, with several explanatory panels. Like the other cathedrals that we have visited, Salisbury has many treasures and would require many visits to do them justice. But even this quick visit left us impressed and inspired to learn more about the history of the building and its builders.

We did not have long to wait before learning more. On a nearby ridge overlooking Salisbury is Old Sarum, site of the first cathedral and castle. These structures were built on a site with a long history. Initially it had been an Iron Age hill fort surrounded by huge banks and ditches. A place with such excellent defensive structures already built must have been prime real estate, and the Romans, Saxons and Normans all used the site, as well as early English kings.

On a central mound, surrounded by another deep ditch stands the remains of the old castle made entirely from flint nodules with a facing of dressed stone, while the outline of the large early cathedral could be seen on the lower level. This cathedral was abandoned in 1219 and the stone used to build the new cathedral and town buildings in Salisbury. Now only the base of the old walls remains, enough to give a bit of protection from the wind, and to exercise the imagination while exploring the site.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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