An ancient cathedral city on the river Avon and a convenient stopping off point for Stonehenge visitors has plenty of other things to keep people busy for a day trip.

My visit was sparked by the opportunity to visit Longford Castle, which is open for guided tours on selected days of the year. As that took in most of the afternoon, I skipped a couple of things to visit, so you could, just about do Salisbury in the morning, and then Stonehenge or Longford Castle in the afternoon.

Fortunately, Salisbury is also quite a compact old town, with the big four attractions practically next to each other, and about a 15-minute walk from the main train station for the town.

It’s not the cheapest place to visit, as pretty much anything indoors will charge you for entry, but the town centre is ye-olde pretty, so even if you’re only visiting the town and nothing else around it, you can fill a day with the museums and a nice amble around the architecture.

Salisbury Cathedral

This is the famous cathedral with the famous spire that gained unfortunate ignominy thanks to the actions of Russian spies.

Now over 750 years old, the Cathedral is pretty much everything you hope it could be – big, impressive and very richly decorated. In fact, that spire is indeed worth a visit as it’s very richly decorated on the outside, far more than most cathedral spires tend to be.

Entry is via the cloisters, and inside a leaflet offered, and a note that the old clock demonstration was in an hour, and then you’re left to wander around the place. On my visit, a school choir was doing the singing in a side aisle, but maybe a Friday morning is too quiet for tourists as I nearly had the entire building to myself.

A guide spotted me looking at a sign when the cathedral flooded and lifted up a stone in the floor to show me how close to the floor the floodplain is. It’s recently risen by a foot in the past few weeks, so is about 2 feet below the stones. No undercroft underneath this Cathedral, obviously.

You can go up to the top to the spire, but only in pre-booked groups (or a rich single person paying for a group), for for the rest of us, it’s a classic cathedral visit, looking up, down, sideways, noticing the memorials and gawping at the stones.

What the cathedral also has though is a copy of the Magna Carta, now on display inside the Chapter House, in a rather temporary looking tent to keep it in the dark.

Entry to the Cathedral is £9 for adults and that’s a fair price for an hour or so of wandering around.

Salisbury Cathedral website

Salisbury Museum

I was admittedly close to skipping this, as £8.80 to visit a local history museum seemed, well, a bit much frankly, based on many visits to other local history museums. In the end, I acceded simply to ensure I completed as much as possible on a visit, and I am very pleased I did as this is a very good museum indeed.

There’s an absolutely huge archaeology room that would look good in a national museum and tells the story of the many sites and burials around Salisbury, including, of course, Stonehenge. There’s everything from pre-Roman to Roman to Victorian antiquaries and modern-day discoveries here.

The rest of the museum is closer to what you might expect, with local history shown off, and less expected, a giant 3-metre high giant which used to be paraded through the town.

A modern art exhibition finishes off the museum.

Considering that I was expecting to spend 30 minutes in there, I came out an hour later and had barely scratched the surface of what was on display.

Salisbury Museum website

Arundells

This is a grand Georgian house that was last lived in by former Prime Minister Ted Heath. And apart from Chartwell, where Winston Churchill lived, it’s the only former Prime Ministerial home you can visit.

Going in, another seemingly expensive venue with tickets costing £9 per adult, but then the ticket seller asked if I had this membership, that membership, or the other — all no. Did I arrive by train? Yes. Ahh, half-price entry then.

So in fact, just £4.50 for the house and garden.

In my experience, house museums devoted to the person who lived there tend to attract people who know about the person in question, and with all due respect to political sorts, Ted Heath is not a well known Prime Minister. Despite being a significant figure in his time, he’s not Thatcher or Blair in the fame stakes, so I expected a nearly empty house.

I was wrong, it’s surprisingly busy and I never had any of the many rooms to myself. Small tour guide sheets are displayed on music stands, which is a nice touch as Ted Heath was almost as famous for his pleasures as his politics. So here was a man who away from politics was famous for entering and often winning sailing competitions, and being quite good at conducting orchestras.

It’s almost hard to think of a senior politician today who is known for anything other than politics, and I suspect that would have made Ted Heath a more enjoyable dinner companion. Talking of which, it turns out he was, and his custom made dining table has a few old place cards out showing the range of his retirement visitors.

Unexpected is a huge Chinese mural on the staircase, and it’s clear he was a big fan of collecting Asian art and antiquities. Very much expected are the political memorabilia, from the photos meeting the grand names of the time to his time during WW2, and his award of the Order of the Garter.

As a grand house, it’s worth visiting on its own, but it gives a rare insight into the mind of a leading politician of his time.

Arundells website

Other things to see

High Street Gate

A 13th-century gatehouse that’s remarkably still being driven through by road vehicles, it’s on the main road from the train station to the Cathedral. Do look up at the grand coat of arms on one side, and the statue on the other. Oddly it’s not listed on the Visit Salisbury website.

St Ann’s Gate

Another medieval gate, this time on the far side of the cathedral, and seemingly far less busy as it leads away from the main shopping/tourist areas.

Poultry Cross

A 14th-century market cross that would have been in the middle of the former medieval market. There used to be four, but now just this one survives.

St Thomas’s Church

Even older than the cathedral, this 800 year old church has the most remarkable medieval “doom painting” that dominates the church and shows the last judgement. A permanent warning to the congregation to behave themselves. This doom painting, from around 1470 is the largest and best preserved such mural in the UK, and in my mind, would be worth a trip to Salisbury on its own.

It had been whitewashed by puritans and nearly lost until it was accidentally discovered in 1819, but only uncovered in 1881, and was recently given a proper restoration to preserve the lime plaster it was painted on.

It’s quite remarkable.

Not visited

Mompesson House – only open for pre-booked tours

The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum – ran out of time

Getting to Salisbury

Direct trains from London Waterloo to Salisbury take around 90 minutes.

Be aware that on the way home, as a member of staff at Salisbury station explained, the display screen for the next fastest train to Waterloo might not be the quickest to arrive. On my trip, I had a 50-minute wait for the fast train, but was advised to take a slow train to Basingstoke, and change for a fast train to Waterloo — and that actually got me home some 20 minutes sooner than I would have.

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4 comments
  1. RichardB says:

    The regimental museum is also worth a visit. It’s fascinating in its own right.

  2. Simon says:

    ‘Haunch of Venison’ is worth a visit too; especially the snug at the front

  3. James says:

    Ian, as a young man I visited the Royal Academy’s Great Japan Exhibition. In those days, even for major exhibitions, if you picked your time right you could get the place pretty much to yourself, and I’d picked such a time. Among the few other visitors were two gentlemen, one rather elderly, the other somewhat younger. They were moving at a similar speed to me and after a while I realised that the younger man was an expert showing the other the exhibition. I tried to catch as much as I could of his expertise, without too obviously tagging along. It took me a while to realise that the older man was the former prime minister! Ted Heath was being shown round by, presumably, the curator. I had no idea that he collected oriental art, nor that one could visit his house and see his collection. Salisbury has just moved to the top of my day-trip list. Thank you!

  4. Sarah says:

    You can book a cathedral tower tour via the website for £16 per person, this also allows entry to the cathedral so very good value.

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