Prior to our move abroad, I picked up Edward Rutherford’s epic novel Sarum and somehow managed to reach the end. This book provides a sweeping history of England by tracing various families from neolithic times to the 20th century. The majority of the 1,000 pages are set in present day Salisbury, also Rutherford’s hometown, tracing the rise and fall of the Sarum settlement. This area of the country was the center of life for thousands of years before neighboring Winchester burned to the ground paving the way for the growth of London. Some sections made me want to poke out my eyes in boredom, but Rutherford provides enough interesting narrative that I had no choice but to finish the book and visit Old Sarum for some type of visual, and ultimately, closure.
The county of Wiltshire lays southwest of London and is full of ancient barrows, weird stone circles like Stonehenge and Avebury, ancient cathedrals, stately homes, and lots of small waterways packed with trout. Last month we spent a Saturday in Salisbury, stayed in Stockbridge at a cute dog-friendly inn (see below picture), and fell in love with Winchester on Sunday.
The town is centered around the 13th century English Gothic cathedral which boasts the largest spire in England. It contains one of four original copies of the Magna Carta, the tombs of Edward Seymour and Lady Catherine Grey, and what is thought to be the world’s oldest working timepiece – a clock from 1386. The various religious rites, churches, and eventually this exact cathedral (especially its spire) play a significant role in Rutherford’s novel and it was the #1 thing I hoped to see in Salisbury. Now owned by the Church of England and stripped of all its “popish finery,” I wasn’t that excited about forking over £12/each to see the barren interior. The outside is gorgeous and that was enough for me. Also, we had the dog with us. I did poke my head inside and was able to see a lovely courtyard and some oddly placed cafe tables. The top picture in this post shows the whole cathedral.
The rest of Salisbury was beautiful as well, especially the area called the “cathedral close,” an enclave surrounded by beautiful old houses, many of which are now museums. The various architectural styles throughout town paint a lovely picture of the vast and varied history of the area. Medieval walls, ancient stone gateways, half-timbered Tudor houses, Georgian and Victorian mansions…
The following morning dawned clear and sunny, and the brief drive from Stockbridge to Winchester was absolutely gorgeous. Wild pheasant basically own the English countryside in autumn, but for one reason or another Connor is never with me when I happen upon a field overflowing with birds. We had a few great sightings that morning, and though they never seem to show well in photos, I always try.
Winchester was enchanting, arguably more historic than Salisbury, and full of people enjoying the beautiful weather. Many brooks, streams, and rivers make up an area they call the “water meadows,” a place so beautiful that John Keats felt compelled to write To Autumn. Lucky for us, we also visited in autumn, and we read his poem on the drive home. Spot on. The water meadows were brimming with trout and Connor was thrilled to have a break from staring at the koi that seem to live in every pond in Europe. Families with dogs were out walking, Penny made zero friends as usual, also prohibiting us from making any friends. There was a Christmas market outside the cathedral, a regular market on the high street, great shops, and plenty of history. We often play the game “if you could live anywhere in England where would it be?” and while our answers fluctuate, Winchester is definitely a top contender.
The city has a population of around 115,000, almost three times the size of Salisbury. The Romans settled in Winchester around AD 70 and West Saxon bishops moved their HQ here around AD 670. It was home to Kings Alfred the Great, Knut, and William the Conqueror; William was responsible for hiring monks to compose the famed Domesday Book of 1086, an administrative survey of the entire country. Not a small achievement for that time period. Winchester Cathedral is from the 11th century and just as stunning as the one in Salisbury. I particular loved that the footprint of Old Minster Cathedral (the most important church in Anglo Saxon England which was torn down in 1093 to make way for the existing church) is marked on the ground. You can see the outlines in the below picture. The city burned down in the 12th century causing many to relocate to London, permanently shifting the center of the country.
Jane Austen is buried inside the cathedral (!!!!!) and as a very devoted fan I desperately wanted to see her tomb. I was so distracted by the rest of the city that I completely forgot about this. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have paid to enter the cathedral anyways. Same situation as Salisbury. We did pass by the house where Jane died, so that was fun. In the picture below, it’s the pastel yellow building.
The below picture is unrelated to Jane Austen’s yellow house, but is an awesome example of Winchester’s beauty.
We followed a mile long path called the Keats Walk through the water meadows to the Almshouse and Hospital of St. Cross that was founded in 1132 – England’s oldest charity.
Finally, some pictures of the pretty River Itchen and an old mill that still grinds flour (pointed red brick building).
On the way home, we tried to do a drive-by glance of Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed, but they have it all figured out and you can’t see it from the road. The castle was closed that day so we were out of luck. We did notice a bunch of hikers on a substantial hill nearby, and I guarantee you they were checking out Highclere from a high. I have that hill saved on Google Maps and I plan to return for my fan girl castle glimpse sometime in the next 5 months.