Today I’m heading to Wiltshire, to the medieval cathedral city of Salisbury. Believed by many to be the loveliest town in Britain, it hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in September 2018, with the Novichok poisonings of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Are you sure it’s safe? asks the husband, proof that mud sticks even two years later. He doesn’t ask about the cathedral!
This should have been a girls trip with three old Uni friends, but Boris’s Tiers got in the way, so it’s just Sally and I, with Lizzie the Labradoodle as stand in for Jane and Fiona, admittedly much quieter but she’ll have to do! We’re staying at the Grasmere House Hotel, overlooking the river and water meadows on the southern edge of town. It’s only three stars, but it’s dog-friendly and in a great location. Fingers crossed!
I arrive early to a warm welcome from a nice man at reception, but my room isn’t ready yet. Never mind, is the bar open? Yes, it’s just down the corridor. I walk into a darkened room and wonder what’s going on, but reception guy is running after me. He turns the lights on and zooms behind the bar. What can I get you, Madame? I realise I’m staying at Fawlty Towers! What fun!
I take my drink through to the lounge, where the carpet is definitely not helping Lizzie to get over her car sickness. However, our room is soon ready and it opens up onto the gardens with lovely views across the River Nadder to the town. There’s even another dog in the room nextdoor for a spot of stick chasing. It’s not flash, but it will do nicely.
From the hotel, we can walk west along the Nadder and join the Town Path as it cuts north across the river, past the Old Mill and through the water meadows to the centre of town. The 15th century Harnham Mill is now a pub, and it would be hard to find a more scenic spot. Hurrah, it’s dog-friendly too, so we nip inside for a bite to eat and are soon chatting away to some locals with a huge Malamute.
The views of Salisbury Cathedral across the meadows were made famous by Constable’s painting of 1831, now in the Tate Britain gallery in London. Amazingly, the vistas are almost the same today. We’re so close to the city centre, but all is green. The cathedral spire, the tallest in the UK at 123 metres high, is visible from miles away.
The water meadows here are such a luminous green, it almost hurts your eyes. The network of ridges, ditches channels and sluices dates back to the 17th century, and was used to circulate water around the fields to keep the grass frost free, so that animals could be fed through the winter. Pretty ingenious. The man in charge of keeping the system going was known as The Drowner. That could make for interesting conversation, ‘So what do you do for a living?’
Following the Town Path you can absolutely forget that you are anywhere near to a city centre. There are even sheep! Sal and I are both enchanted with this place. Lizzie, meanwhile, is scampering around making friends and receiving treats from all and sundry. Salisbury dog walkers are clearly very generous. She’s impressed too.
We eventually arrive in the medieval city centre. Salisbury was originally known as New Sarum, to distinguish it from the nearby Neolithic settlement of Old Sarum (on my must-visit list). The town grew up around the cathedral in the 13th century and soon became the largest conurbation in Wiltshire.
Despite being quite small population-wise, with only around 45,000 inhabitants, Salisbury qualifies as a city due to a charter granted by King Henry III in 1227. Geography has helped to keep it compact and charming – there are rivers on three sides, the Avon, Nadder and Bourne. Plus, the cathedral is surrounded by a Close of 80 hectares, made up of open lawns, historic buildings and gardens. It really does feel quite village-like even in the centre.
Salisbury is known for having lots of boutique shops and great dining opportunities, including a plethora of pubs and inns set in characterful old buildings. Most are dog-friendly, which means we’re spoilt for choice. No wonder that in 2019, The Sunday Times named Salisbury the best place to live in the UK, calling it ‘divinely attractive and welcoming’.
At the time, the city had just emerged from a year-long decontamination programme. Of all the unlikely places for an international intrigue! The locals must have been gobsmacked to hear about Russian spies sneaking along their cobbled streets, depositing deadly poison in a perfume bottle. Reading about the incident, I’m saddened to learn that there were animal casualties as well as the five people who were hospitalised. The Skripals had a cat and two Guinea pigs, which didn’t survive their exposure to Novichok.
I’m pleased to report that nothing untoward is happening today. Salisbury is back to its picture perfect and rather sleepy best. Everyone talks to us, and while it’s true that most places are friendlier with a pooch in tow, this takes the biscuit. Literally – Lizzie has cadged about half a dozen. Our wanderings are followed by a lovely dinner at The Pheasant Inn accompanied by lots of wine. We’re enjoying ourselves so much we forget about the pesky curfew and have to be asked to leave just before 10pm.
Next morning, we’re in Basil Fawlty territory again, as we’re served breakfast by an elderly gentleman who is only just moving. Lifting each leg and propelling it forwards seems to require a mammoth effort. Entrusting him with a heavy tray seems quite foolhardy to me. I’m very worried about him falling over the dog as it’s unlikely he would get up again. What is it? he asks, pointing at Lizzie. Obviously not an enthusiast, but still making an effort. Breakfast is very good, with extra marks for comedy value.
We’ve saved the best till last – this morning we’re visiting the cathedral. Yes, all of us, as just like the rest of town, this building welcomes pets. How good is that? I can’t help feeling slightly naughty though, I’ve never taken a dog to church before, and I keep expecting to get told off, especially when Lizzie drinks the water from the font!
This amazing building was constructed between 1220 and 1258. It’s famous for its spire, which became the tallest in the UK after Lincoln Cathedral’s spire collapsed in 1549. It also houses the oldest working clock in the world, dating from 1386. The ticking is particularly loud, causing poor Lizzie to jump several times, hence the blurry photo below. What’s really impressive though, is the friendliness of the volunteers here – they all say hello and pat the dog.
Out through the peaceful cloisters and into the chapter house with its amazing ceiling – here, for me, is the piece de resistance, the Magna Carta. One of the originals from 1215, it’s kept in a special darkened cube. It’s written in Latin, but you can hardly tell, the writing is so tiny. This is because the parchment (sheepskin) on which it’s written was so expensive so the 63 clauses had to be squashed up as much as possible.
I’m surprised that there are no signatures on this most important of charters, but that’s because hardly anyone could write back then, including the King. The parties who were witness to the agreement attached their seal in wax instead. In case you think this is just a mouldy old document, Magna Carta is widely believed to provide the bedrock of our parliamentary democracy. It guarantees the rights of individuals, and has been used recently by business owners protesting the closure of their premises due to coronavirus. Yes, they quoted Magna Carta. This is an amazing piece of paper, sorry, parchment!
We finish our visit to Salisbury with a coffee in another of the many dog-friendly establishments. The Cosy Corner is a lovely space with a menu that has us licking our lips. If only we hadn’t eaten so much breakfast! Lizzie likes the look of the sofa, but I think that might be pushing it a bit, even in this most canine-welcoming of towns. She goes and sulks under the table, but I’m pretty sure she’s had as much fun as Sal and I.
Great walking, superb scenery, lots of history, plenty of pubs. Salisbury ticks all the boxes. And I need to visit Old Sarum. I’ll be back, with the dog of course.