Pilgrimage Challenge 2: Salisbury to Old Sarum Circular Route

Music: Piano arrangement of ‘Be Still My Soul’ by Toby Nelms

“In this house for a hundred and fifty years, we have woven a rich fabric of constant praise. Things shall be as they were; only better, richer, the pattern of worship complete at last.” [1]

(William Golding, The Spire,p.10)

As I approached Salisbury Cathedral these words came to mind. Golding’s The Spire tells the tale of Jocelin, Dean of a cathedral, and his obsession with building a spire. Jocelin presses his master builder to keep making the spire higher, despite the dangers of building such a tall and heavy structure. The idea of the spire consumes Jocelin who eventually succumbs to illness at the novel’s end leaving the structure incomplete — a monument not to God but to man’s pride and over-reaching ambition.

Salisbury Cathedral

Golding, a former teacher at Bishop Wordsworth’s School, would have seen Salisbury Cathedral’s fourteenth-century spire from the school grounds. At 123m Salisbury’s spire is the tallest in Britain, a title previously held by Lincoln Cathedral before the collapse of its spire in the sixteenth century.[2] However, the construction of Salisbury’s spire did not come without problems. Christopher Wren’s 1668 report on the condition of the spire advised that the structure needed further support – the marble pillars supporting the spire had started to bend under its weight. Internal iron bands were therefore used to strengthen the spire.[3] Thus the structure remains standing today and, unlike Jocelin’s spire, provides a focal point for Salisbury, drawing in tourists, worshippers, and even a pilgrim or two.

Baptismal Font designed by William Pye

Salisbury Cathedral has been a place of almost “constant praise” for 800 years.[4] I briefly wondered what Golding would think then of its current situation. The Cathedral has just reopened for private prayer and reflection. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 Salisbury’s doors, and the doors of cathedrals and churches across the country, have remained shut. For months Salisbury Cathedral has remained silent, no treble voices reverberating, no incense clouding the air. Walking into a space so undisturbed by the usual background murmur of tourism, prayer and organ music was a unique experience. In some ways it was incredibly peaceful — nothing but the sound of a few footsteps and the gentle running of water over the baptismal font, crafted by William Pye in 2008, punctuated the air.[5] However, the experience was also quite discomforting. It was evident that things are not “as they were”, and it occurred to me that many of those who might usually come to pray or reflect might still feel that it is unsafe to do so.[6] The Cathedral seems to sit ‘in limbo’, waiting until it can welcome home its choirs, its worshippers, and its visitors on a larger scale. Maybe once we reach this point things will be, as Golding writes, “better, richer” than before and the “pattern of worship” will again feel complete.[7] One can only hope.

There are candle stations at different points around the Cathedral, making one’s journey through the building feel like a pilgrimage in itself, which is perhaps what it should be. I stopped by the stained-glass windows in the North transept and took a moment to remember Becca. Placing my candle on the almost-full stand I thought about just how many prayers must have been said in this space over the years. Like the sound of the water running from Pye’s font, whispers of these intentions, of words, both thought and spoken, permeate the Cathedral, captured in visual form by flickering of flame and melting of wax.

Stairway by Danny Lane

I would have loved to stay longer but the road to Old Sarum called. After a quick hand sanitisation we left the Cathedral, stopping briefly to take a closer look at the modern art  which occupies the Cathedral close. This includes Danny Lane’s Stairway.[8] The purpose of this piece is not just the art in front of you, but the art beyond. At the end of the last stair the eye is drawn to the immense, grey shape of the Cathedral. Lane’s temporary structure leads to the permanent, starting at the feet of the viewer and appearing to end in line with the Cathedral spire. As such, Lane’s work bridges seven centuries of art and architecture, linking the modern to the medieval. The etched glass surfaces make it look as if the piece is covered in running water, expressing the uncertainty, fragility, and temporariness of the individual’s future path. With Salisbury Cathedral at its end, Stairway combines movement with the immovable, it speaks of the journey and the final, certain destination.

St Edmund’s/Salisbury Arts Centre

Shaking off the slight discomfort that seemed to be triggered by the art, we carried on with our own journey. We continued through the fourteenth-century North Gate and out onto the streets of Salisbury. On the way St Edmund’s Church, now known as Salisbury Arts Centre, came into view.[9] St Edmund’s was founded in the thirteenth century but the majority of the building looks fifteenth century or later. The tower, for example, hails from the seventeenth-century. It was rebuilt following the collapse of an earlier tower in 1653. The conversion of St Edmund’s to an arts centre came in 1975, as congregation numbers had significantly decreased. However, St Edmund’s still holds a special place in the hearts of many Salisbury residents. Ken Edwards, for example, gives a moving account of his years as a St Edmund’s parishioner on the Milford St Bridge Project website:

“St Edmund’s was the hub of the community in those days…it was very sad when that shut. We used to have a 9.15 service.  Then afterwards we used to have breakfast in the Hale Hall.  All the congregation used to come and we used to have bacon and eggs sometimes, or just eggs on toast,you know, they used to have full breakfasts. St. Edmund’s was our church, was our main hub.. ‘cos that had a great social activity,things going on in the Hale Hall, and so we were up the church a lot.”[10]

Unfortunately, this building was closed, otherwise I would have ventured inside to take more photos. Reluctantly we moved on, starting towards the outskirts of Salisbury, crossing over the motorway bridge and walking across Bishopdown to the base of Old Sarum.

Access to the castle itself is currently operating on a booking system to ensure social distancing and there is a one-way system in place as you move around the castle. Old Sarum’s history is multi-layered and it is almost overwhelming to see these different layers revealed. To very quickly summarise: in the Iron Age the site was a hillfort. From around 43 AD the site was occupied by the Romans and became known as Sorviodunum. There is evidence of an early English settlement from around 552 AD. In the years following, Old Sarum was also used to protect local people from Viking raids. A castle was constructed in the middle of the site following the Norman Conquest, and the remains of this castle can still be seen today. Old Sarum consequently has evidence of Iron Age, Roman, Saxon and Norman occupation.[11]

The deep ditches surrounding the castle immediately catch the eye. One can imagine the difficulty of attacking it. Moreover, you can almost visualise how the castle would have looked in the site’s centre, raised above all other dwellings and structures with a birds-eye view of the area’s comings and goings. At one end of the castle was the Great Tower, housing most of the monarch’s rooms. The remains of a chapel also exist towards the centre of the castle – the Chapel of St Margaret, the chapel of the servants and garrison. The royal family used a separate chapel on the first floor, the Chapel of St Nicholas, where a lamp was kept constantly burning, a sign of devotion through night and day.[12]

Arguably, the most impressive feature of Old Sarum is the ruin of Old Sarum Cathedral, which can be viewed from a height from within the castle walls. All that remains of the Cathedral are its foundations, the cruciform ghost of a building.

The foundations of Old Sarum Cathedral

Old Sarum Cathedral was consecrated in 1092 during the time of Bishop Osmund.[13] However, the building was badly damaged in a storm just five days later – not a great start.[14] The original building was extended under the watchful eye of Osmund’s successor, Bishop Roger of Old Sarum, a one-time Chancellor of the Kingdom.[15] The most extensive and perhaps most lavish changes came under his tenure. William of Malmesbury went so far as to describe how Bishop Roger furnished the Cathedral so that it “yielded place to no other in England, but surpassed many.” [16] Bishop Jocelyn, who succeeded Roger, and who was potentially the inspiration for Golding’s Dean Jocelin, also made significant changes to the Cathedral, adding a new west end to the building featuring two towers.[17] By studying the foundations one can pick out the points of alteration and extension, the individual marks of each Bishop and of each time.  

Walking through the outline of Old Sarum Cathedral feels very odd. You still have the experience of walking through the nave, yet no walls or stained glass surround you. From the west end you can see the stubs of pillars that once lined the building. Looking at the remains of the pillars one can imagine walking underneath a grand, vaulted ceiling towards the pulpitum, the screen separating the nave and choir, with gentle light streaming through stained glass.

Turning my eyes from the ghost of the old Cathedral I spotted the spire of Salisbury Cathedral in the distance. Bishop Richard Poore helped to faciliate the move of the Cathedral from Old Sarum to Salisbury.[18] The Legend of the Arrow describes how the new site for the Cathedral was decided when an archer at the old site shot an arrow into the valley. It hit a deer and the deer which then died in the spot where Salisbury Cathedral now sits.[19] I recounted this story to my brother who, looking at the distance between Old Sarum and Salisbury, remarked that the archer was either a very poor shot or the deer was supernaturally endowed with strength to have run so far after being hit. In any case, the tale makes a nice backstory for the founding of the Cathedral on its present site. The foundation stones of Salisbury Cathedral were laid in 1220 and soon a new settlement was formed around the Cathedral site: the city of Salisbury.

At this point it occurred to me that the theme of this pilgrimage was very much centred on transition and transformation. I had started with Salisbury Cathedral, a building transformed by new social-distancing measures, its community beginning the transition to a new, socially-distanced form of worship and prayer. Standing at the old Cathedral site and looking across to Salisbury Cathedral in the distance, I could see a transition from old to new, from past to present. Change is constant and unavoidable, and it most certainly leaves its mark.

Walking by the river

Aware of the passing of time, and the danger of me becoming too philosophical, Father Mackay soon ushered us back towards Salisbury. We made our way down from Old Sarum and, after accidentally veering off route, finally found ourselves walking next to the River Avon. Mother Mackay briefly reminded me at this point that this was the river I once fell into at a regatta, before my race had even begun. I cringed at the memory. The way back was far more peaceful than the way to Old Sarum. Instead of tar and concrete we were treated to fields and long grass. Eventually, Salisbury Cathedral spire came into view again as we rounded a corner, entering a field on the edge of the town where a few picnickers were enjoying the early evening sun. I looked up at the spire ahead of me and thought of how welcome a sight it must have been to pilgrims over the years, not just as a religious symbol, but as a sign that you are safe, welcome, and that you are not entirely lost.

Back in Salisbury

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[1] William Golding, The Spire, (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), (p.10).

[2] “Timeline”, Lincoln Cathedral, https://lincolncathedral.com/history-conservation/timeline/, N.d, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[3] “Sir Christopher Wren”, Salisbury Cathedral, https://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/history/sir-christopher-wren, N.d, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[4] Golding, p.10.

[5] William Pye, “Salisbury Cathedral Font”, William Pye, N.d., https://www.williampye.com/works/salisbury-cathedral-font, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[6] Golding, p.10

[7] Ibid.

[8] Danny Lane, Stairway, (2005), Sculpture; “Danny Lane, Stairway”, Cass Sculpture Foundation, http://www.sculpture.org.uk/artwork/stairway, N.d., Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[9] “Former Church of St Edmund”, Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1355852, Accessed: 28th June 2020; WiltshireCreative, https://www.wiltshirecreative.co.uk/, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[10] “St Edmunds Church”, Milford Street Bridge Project,https://www.milfordstreetbridgeproject.org.uk/content/places/churches-other-religious-buildings/st-edmunds-church, N.d., Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[11] “Timeline”, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/siteassets/home/visit/places-to-visit/old-sarum/school-visits/timeline-old-sarum.pdf, N.d., Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[12] “Old Sarum”, Ancient and Historical Monuments in the City of Salisbury, (London, 1977), British History Online. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/salisbury/pp1-24, Accessed; 28th June 2020.  

[13] “History of Old Sarum”, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/old-sarum/history/, N.d., Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[14] “Old Sarum”, British History Online.

[15] Ibid.

[16] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum (Rolls Ser. Xc), ii, 275: tectum turris ecclesiae omnino disjecit, multamque maceriam labefactavit, cited in “Old Sarum”, British History Online.

[17] “Old Sarum”, British History Online.

[18] Philippa Hoskin, “Poor, Richard (d.1237)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography, (2004), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/22525, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

[19] “Cathedral Celebrates 800th Anniversary Despite Lockdown”, The Diocese of Salisbury, (1st May 2020), https://www.salisbury.anglican.org/news/cathedral-celebrates-800th-anniversary-despite-lockdown, Accessed: 28th June 2020.

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