Stumbling Along: England’s Old Sarum

The Traveler

When in England, many visit the city of Salisbury, 90 miles southwest of London. The majestic cathedral, small English countryside charm and nearby Stonehenge make it a popular must-see. But right outside of town there is a spot you shouldn’t miss. Old Sarum is the original Salisbury.

Salisbury never fails to captivate its visitors. Cobblestone streets and cozy cottages ooze old world charm. Arriving via morning train from London, we laid out our mission to the gentleman at the Tourist Bureau. He provided us with a map of the Circular Walk to Old Sarum and warned correctly that the path was not well marked.

The path, easy enough for sneakers and the moderately fit, winds through Salisbury, along the River Avon and through the Avon Valley Nature Reserve. Leaving the “city” behind, it is easy to imagine the original residents, going about their daily business. Built around 500 B.C., all that is left of Old Sarum are uncovered ruins. Designed as a hill fort, in its heyday, Sarum boasted a great cathedral, a royal castle and a good-sized city. The farther we walked the more reality began to slip away. One could almost imagine the original residents sowing seeds and tending their livestock. Don’t forget to turn around and look back at the spire of Salisbury Cathedral; it‘s the tallest one in England.

The path, fairly easy to follow out of town and into the Nature Reserve, curves around a field and back over the river. There nestled against the hill is a cozy neighborhood. Throughout its history, Sarum fell under the control of Celts, Romans, Saxons and Normans. William the Conqueror put Sarum on the ancient map for good around 1070 when he made it a center of operations, building the castle and cathedral. But, alas, the end of Sarum was drawing near.

Here, the walk gets a bit tricky, but since you can always see the hill, you know you are generally going in the right direction. Walking down the street, we saw an Old Sarum sign, directing us into a field. Two paths lie before us. The path straight up looked a bit more used, so we chose that one. But to paraphrase poet Robert Frost’s advice “always choose the road less traveled” would have served us better. We trudged up the field, past some horses that looked at us pitifully, but didn’t bother to clue us in on the error of our choice.

Trees obstructed our view as switchbacks led us up toward our destination. Coming around the side of the hill, the trees thinned out and we could see the entry gate. We could also see the “right” trail leading around the field to the entrance.

We continued along the rim, turning onto the road that led to the ruins. Unlike many historic sites, which are roped off, allowing for a distance view only, Old Sarum is free for the exploring. Walk along the outside wall that protected the castle; jump down

into the servant’s kitchen; discover the king’s sleeping quarters. Looking down, you can see the outline of the cathedral. But don’t forget to look up and out. Being on top of a hill, you have a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area. A ruined castle wall to perch on and a beautiful view, what more could one ask for from the English countryside?

This being January in England, (definitely not the tourist high season!) we had the place to ourselves. In Old Sarum, the lone employee was probably shocked awake by our arrival. Guidebooks tend to describe Old Sarum as being “wind-swept,” “remote,” “bleak” or “parched.” After a while, I began to feel quite wind swept, however I was still enjoying the remoteness.

Cramped quarters, high winds and difficulty in obtaining water soon led the residents to move to the river, thus establishing Salisbury in the 13 th century. The Bishop ordered the building of a new Cathedral, arranged the streets into a grid, rerouted the river, and designed a new market town. This marked the beginning of the end for Sarum, whose cathedral was torn down so its stones could be used to build the new cathedral. Sarum was the little hill fort that wouldn’t die, surrendering its castle to be used as the local jail and lasting in one depleted form or another for two more centuries.

I was still three centuries back, watching over my sheep and darning my dresses when true reality began to sink in. Time, which had stood still, was moving again, bringing with it a train schedule, urging us back to present day. My time in the 11 th century had ended.

In 1913, an archeological project of the Society of Antiquaries of London uncovered the remains of the castle and cathedral. Some of the archeologists’ finds can be seen at the Salisbury and South Wilts Museum. Old Sarum is now under control of the English Heritage, the government body created to care for more than 400 of the country’s historical sites.

“This is an ideal place to visit,” shares Peter Mitchell, Senior Custodian for Old Sarum. “Apart from the human history, there is a wealth of natural history with gorgeous walks and equally gorgeous views on all sides.”

Located only two miles north of Salisbury, this is a fun place to stop and enjoy the view. Adult admission is 2.50 pounds, with discounts given for seniors and students. Child admission is 1.90 pounds.

Old Sarum is open year round, and sees around 75,000 visitors a year. Best times to visit are the warmer months; bring a blanket and enjoy a picnic on the grounds. Some summer weekends, Old Sarum hosts various historical pageants. Visit the English Heritage website at www.english-heritage.org.uk for specific dates and times.