Salisbury’s famous cathedral boasts England’s tallest spire and it is home to the best-preserved original copy of the Magna Carta.
The Anglican cathedral, also known as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, dates from the 13th century after the clergy decided to relocate the Old Sarum Cathedral. Construction began in 1220 and the main body of the cathedral was finished in 1258 with the tower being completed by 1320. Despite construction taking 100 years, the bulk of the cathedral was built over a 38-year period and it has a consistent architectural style, Early English Gothic. After the collapse of the spire of Lincoln Cathedral in 1549, Salisbury Cathedral has since held the record for England’s tallest spire.
It is a massive cathedral considering that it was built 800 years ago at a time when Salisbury would have had a significantly smaller population than it does today. The cathedral’s spire weighs 6,500 tons and the roof features around 3,000 tons of oak topped by 300 tons of iron yet its foundations are only 1.2m (4 ft) deep.
What to see at Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral is one of the country’s most popular cathedrals for visitors with more than half a million people visiting every year. The cathedral offers plenty to see including England’s largest cloister, the country’s largest cathedral close and its tallest spire, the world’s oldest working clock and the best-preserved of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta.
At 123m (404 ft), Salisbury Cathedral has England’s tallest spire and it has held this record since 1549.
The best way to see the spire is to take one of the Tower Tours, which have an additional admission fee. The Tower Tour involves climbing 332 steps to the base of the spire, where visitors are able to see the spire’s original supporting wooden frame and also take in one of the loveliest views in Wiltshire.
The Salisbury Cathedral clock
The cathedral’s large iron-framed clock is unique in that it lacks a dial. The clock, dating from 1386, is said to be the world’s oldest working clock. However, this claim is disputed with clocks in France, Germany, Italy and Honduras also claiming to be the world’s oldest. The clock was discovered in the tower in 1928 and it was restored to working condition in 1956.
Guides give demonstrations of the clock after 11am on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 10.30am on Saturdays.
Salisbury Cathedral has England’s largest cloisters, The enclosed square surrounded by the cloisters features cedar trees dating from 1837 (Queen Victoria’s accession).
The Magna Carta
For many visitors, a highlight of their visit is the opportunity to see the best surviving of the four original copies of the Magna Carta, which is on display inside the octagonal-shaped chapter house.
In 1215 the Magna Carta was signed by King John at Runnymede and many modern legal principals trace their origins to this document. It is considered by many to be the original constitution and the constitutions of several countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA (as well as the US Bill of Rights) are said to have been influenced by the Magna Carta.
At the time of signing, several copies of the document were made to be distributed around the country. Of the four remaining original copies, the one at Salisbury Cathedral is considered to be in the best condition. The Magna Carta was brought to Salisbury by Elias of Dereham who was present at Runnymede and who later became a canon of Salisbury.
The cathedral close
At 32ha (80 acres), Salisbury has England’s largest cathedral close. This is essentially a walled city within a city that comprises the historic area around the cathedral. The cathedral close doesn’t just include the cathedral, it also includes several other points in interest such as Arundells, Mompesson House, the Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum and the Salisbury Museum.
Visiting Salisbury Cathedral
The cathedral is part of the cluster of visitor attractions inside the cathedral close south of the city centre. It is around a five-minute walk south of the city centre and it is just under a 15-minute walk to the railway station. Access to the cathedral close is via either the High Street Gate (accessible from High Street) or St Ann’s Gate (located at the point where Exeter, St Ann and St John’s Streets met).
Most visitors wander through the cathedral, take a quick look at the clock, and end up in the chapter house where they can see the Magna Carta. However, it is worth taking one of the free cathedral tours and the Tower Tour (which has an additional charge) is also highly recommended.
Salisbury Cathedral has over 250 volunteer guides who conduct tours of the cathedral. These include both free tours and paid tours that take you into parts of the building that are off-limits to visitors on a standard admission ticket.
Free tours leave from the main entrance at frequent intervals throughout the day and this tour gives you an excellent introduction to the cathedral. If you prefer to explore the cathedral at your own pace, you can pick up one of the free guide maps at the entrance, which are available in 15 languages (English, Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Latvian, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish).
There are also a couple of speciality free tours available including a Stained Glass Tour and a Close Tour.
The free Stained Glass Tour tells the story of the history of the cathedral’s windows. It departs each Monday at noon and lasts around an hour. Advance booking is not required, simply turn up on the day.
The free tours of the cathedral close operate on Sundays. These tours operate at 11am and 3.30pm on Sundays and are a fascinating way to learn more about this unique part of Salisbury.
Tower Tours last 105 minutes and they cost £13.50 (£8.50 for children aged 7–17), however, this does also include admission to the cathedral and chapter house. There is only space for 12 people on each tour so they should be booked in advance online, particularly if you’re visiting during summer. These tours involve climbing 332 steps and much of this is on the original 13th-century stone spiral staircase, which does not have handrails. Visitors taking this tour need to wear sensible shoes (no high heels or flip flops) and due to health and safety regulations, children younger than seven and anyone shorter than 1.2m (4 ft) is not able to participate in the tour.
Other paid tours include the Graffiti Tour (£12.50, children £8), the Library Tour (£22) and the Stonemasonry Works Yard Tour (£17.50).
The Graffiti Tour runs only once or twice each month and it shows visitors medieval graffiti, some of it dating from the 13th century. Most of the tour is one the main floor level, however, part of the tour involves climbing 70 steps to the triforium (the highest balcony level).
The Library Tour takes visitors into the 15th-century library that is located above the cloisters where you can see books that date back as far as the 9th century. The tour departs at 2pm and lasts around 45 minutes and the price of the tour includes a cream tea served in the cathedral’s Refectory Restaurant.
The Stonemasonry Works Yard Tour takes you to the cathedral’s maintenance areas where limestone blocks are carved using 13th-century techniques. These tours provide a fascinating insight into one of only nine cathedral stonemasonry yards in the country.
The main areas of the cathedral that you would visit on a standard admission ticket are wheelchair accessible. These areas include the cathedral floor, the chapter house and the gift shop and restaurant. However, the paid tours are not wheelchair accessible as these tours take you into parts of the cathedral that require access via medieval spiral staircases.
There are two restaurants inside the cathedral. The Refectory Restaurant, which is open year-round and the Bell Tower Tea Rooms, which is only open during summer. Both serve light meals and cream teas, although the Bell Tower Tea Rooms also does a lovely afternoon tea.
As this is a working cathedral, it is best to visit Monday to Saturday as parts of the cathedral may be inaccessible on Sundays. Also, note that opening hours during the year are subject to change due to religious events.
There are several other attractions within the cathedral close. These include Arundells, Mompesson House, the Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum and the Salisbury Museum.
Although you can see the highlights of the cathedral in just 45 minutes or so, it is best to allow a few hours to see it properly. Add an extra two hours if you have booked one of the Tower Tours.