On a beautiful spring-like day in early March, a friend and I joined Visit Wiltshire and English Heritage to explore some of Wiltshire’s history. We started the day in Salisbury, so took an early train from Bristol.
It’s a lovely train journey from Bristol to Salisbury. There’s many direct services from Bristol Temple Meads and the journey should take no longer than an hour and a half. It’s so nice to watch the early morning light on the fields and rivers while enjoying a coffee on the train.
With the spire of Salisbury Cathedral on the horizon to announce our imminent arrival in the city, we excitedly prepared ourselves for the day ahead. It was my first visit to Salisbury and was particularly keen to see this impressive cathedral up close.
Salisbury Cathedral was founded 800 years ago and, in an almost unbelievable feat, it was moved brick-by-brick in the 1220s from its original location at Old Sarum. Fresh water was sparse at Old Sarum and the weather was bad. The nearby castle meant the medieval bishop of Salisbury was subject to royal supervision and regular harassment by soldiers. So the move was on and South Wiltshire changed forever.
It’s easy to walk to Salisbury Cathedral from the train station. It takes around 20 minutes and it’s good to see some of the city and get orientated. You won’t get lost – just keep walking towards the spire. It’s the tallest in Britain! We approached from High Street, passing under the medieval High Street Gate and through Choristers Square, where there’s some lovely buildings to see. The cathedral is situated next to the square and surrounded by a large green open space which is the perfect setting for this magnificent building.
We just had time to take some external shots of the cathedral and have a look at the cloisters before our appointment at the Salisbury Museum, just opposite the cathedral. The museum is in another medieval building called The King’s House as James I stayed here in 1610 and 1613. The King’s House is a grade I listed building, originally built as a home for the Abbot of Sherborne in the early 13th century. Over the years the building has been home to schools and colleges and some notable students include the sisters of Thomas Hardy. In 1981 The King’s House became a fitting home to the Salisbury Museum.
We spent most of our time at the museum in the Wessex Gallery, which houses important archaeological artefacts from Stonehenge and Old Sarum. It was fascinating to see Neolithic tools, Bronze Age burials and pottery urns. The museum is also home to local art including ceramics, glass, costumes and textiles. Admission is £8 for adults, £4 for children or £20 for families.
Visit Wiltshire very kindly arranged our lunch at Tinga, an independently owned vibrant and photogenic Mexican restaurant. We were welcomed with appetisers of traditional corn tortilla chips with three kinds of guacamole. And baked grasshoppers. I was reluctant to eat the crunchy insect, but with a little encouragement I tried one. It’s traditional to top a tortilla with guacamole and a grasshopper, so that’s what I did. To be honest, I could only taste the guacamole and the tortilla had enough crunch to disguise the grasshopper’s texture. For my main course I ordered chicken burrito, a toasted flour tortilla filled with beans, rice, coleslaw, and of course the chicken. To drink, a delicious pina colada!
After lunch it was time to drive to Stonehenge. Visiting this monument was another first for me and I was very excited to be getting the stone circle experience! These visits take place outside of normal opening hours, with no more than 30 people getting unique access to the stone circle.
We arrived just as the site was preparing to close for the day, so we had time to look around the visitor centre which includes a shop, café and an exhibition space plus a recreation of a Neolithic village. Buses transport visitors to the stones which are a short distance from the visitor centre. I was impressed with the architecture of the centre which seems to somehow echo the structure of Woodhenge, another Neolithic monument which stood at Durrington Walls, around 5 miles away from Stonehenge.
Upon arriving at the stones, my first thought was that the monument seemed smaller that I had anticipated. But as we walked through and around the stones, and getting perspectives from different angles in the immediate landscape, the proportions seemed to settle in my mind.
Our guide Carol was on hand to answer questions and fill us in with some fascinating facts and theories about the ancient monument. The exact purpose of Stonehenge is still a mystery. Archaeology tells us that it wasn’t lived in or defended. But its precise alignment to mark the changing seasons and the nearby burial mounds indicate it was a place of spiritual importance. Some believe it marks a centre of Earth energy and ley lines converge here. I had a go at dowsing for Earth energy, the dowsing rods did move and I promise their movement was totally independent from my control. Who knows?
There’s limited availability for the stone circle experience. An adult ticket costs £47 and you need to make a request to book on the English Heritage website. There’s plenty of car parking at the Stonehenge visitor centre. If you’re using public transport, get the train to Salisbury and the Stonehenge tour bus from Salisbury station.