Old Sarum is the site of the earliest settlement in the Salisbury area. It dates from the Iron Age and has been inhabited by the Romans, Saxons and Normans. The site is not far from Salisbury and it consists of the ruins of a castle and cathedral that were built shortly after the Norman conquest.
There are indications of settlement as early as 5,000 years ago and around 400 BC an Iron Age hillfort was established on the site. From this point, the site was more-or-less continuously occupied up until the early 13th century. During its history, it has been occupied by the Romans, the Saxons and the Normans. Each successive wave of occupation brought with it new developments with the Romans building roads, the Saxons reinforcing the defences to use the site as a stronghold against the Vikings and the Normans built a castle, a defensive stone curtain wall and a cathedral.
By the mid-12th century, Old Sarum had become a bustling town. That wasn’t to last, however, and by the early 13th-century disagreements between the clergy and the military caused the cathedral to be relocated to a new site 3km (2 miles) to the south that became New Sarum (now called Salisbury). Shortly afterwards, Old Sarum was abandoned as most residents had by then already moved to New Sarum.
Although a fictional work, the 1987 Edward Rutherfurd novel, Sarum, charts the history of the town (both Old and New Sarum) from prehistoric times right up till the mid-1980s. The book is an excellent in-flight read that will give you a crash course in English history and it will certainly give you a greater insight into your visit to Salisbury and the surrounding area.
What to see at Old Sarum
Shortly after Old Sarum being abandoned in the 13th century, its buildings were dismantled with the stone being used to build the new town. The site is now a ruin but the foundations of the cathedral and the castle remain and visitors to the site are able to get a good idea of how the old town would have appeared.Old Sarum is surrounded by a large ditch and the centre of the old town features a raised area surrounded by another ditch. The central area contains the remains of the Norman castle that was demolished in 1322 while the outer area contains the remains of the original cathedral.
The castle was built by William the Conqueror around 1070 and it stood on this site until 1322, when its demolition was ordered by King Edward II. Although a ruin, the castle is the most complete part of Old Sarum and it is possible to wander around what remains of the castle walls.
Although the cathedral was eventually dismantled and used as building materials for the new cathedral and for other buildings within Salisbury’s cathedral close, the foundations of the cathedral remain and these give an indication of the scale of the original building.
Visiting Old Sarum
Old Sarum is located around 3km (2 miles) north of Salisbury and it is served by both local buses from Salisbury and also by the hop-on-hop-off Stonehenge Tour bus that runs between Salisbury and Stonehenge.
Most visitors who aren’t driving will arrive on the Stonehenge Tour bus. However, you can also get here on a regular local bus with routes 11 Park & Ride, 67, Activ8, X4, X5 and X67 stopping on the A345 less than a 10-minute walk from the main entrance.
There is a car park around 200m (650 ft) from the site entrance.
There is no cafe on the site, however, there is a vending machine that sells hot drinks and you can buy ice cream at the gift shop. The Old Castle, a Harvester pub with a nice beer garden, is only a five-minute walk from the site entrance and is the closest place to serve a proper meal that doesn’t come from a vending machine.
Allow around 1½ hours for your visit, a little longer if you want a drink or two at the pub across the road.