Salisbury Cathedral   2 comments

The Close Salisbury 1

With a four-day weekend to kill and only a regular weekend’s worth of shite to do around the house, I booked a room at the King’s Head in Salisbury (2012 write up here) for Easter Sunday and a couple of tour tickets for the Cathedral tower for the Monday after Easter.  Salisbury is classified a city like every other borough with a cathedral but, like Ely, it is tiny (about 1/4 the size of Swindon, which is just a ‘town’) and the streets more-or-less roll up for the big holidays despite the constant influx of tourists (like us!).  So we hiked a bit across the Harnham meadows and along rivers Sunday then around the city neighbourhoods Monday morning but very little that interested us was open-for-business in the morning.  So, to the Close (the gated buurt around the Cathedral) it was.

Salisbury Cathedral

I would guess 90% of the visitors this weekend were from abroad, about evenly divided between Europeans (a lot of Germans and Italians, some Dutch and Spaniards), Chinese, and North Americans with most good Brits nursing hangovers or staking out prime beer garden locations.  Still and all, it was not especially crowded.

Salisbury Cathedral cloisters

With time before our tower tour, we headed to the Chapter House which had been closed for remedial work for a few years but now reopened with an exhibit on the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  The room was in pristine shape and it is worth a side trip just for the frieze depicting scenes from Genesis and Exodus that wraps around the room.

Salisbury Cathedral ceiling

The ceiling tiles were really gleaming, but I found out later that this is entirely a sham.  The Gothic ceilings are made by taking this porous, white stone as a base to fill a form and then wet lime is poured through.  The lime solidifies (but never fully dries) and can be worked to a luster; the stone gives the structure strength.  The ’tiles’ are just lines painted on meticulously using a vegetable dye.

Salisbury Cathedral Magna Carta display

You know, the Magna Carta was kind of a cheap thrill to see but I didn’t feel compelled to photograph it. I’ve seen copies of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, as well, but always made some wisecrack about how they were just a couple of cheap knock-offs or bootlegs of the original.  This was really a pleasure to see after all that and yet I’m still surprised I had nothing smarmy to say although Jackie got off a couple of good peasant-based digs.

Salisbury Cathedral painted monuments

There are always monuments of people you know of and people you have no idea of but the one above is especially nice because the marble has been repainted to something like original condition.  There was also a nice one of decay, but not nearly so impressive as the one in Tewkesbury Abbey.

Salisbury Cathedral world's oldest clock

There was also this clock (above) which is accurate to within the hour (no hands indicating anything more accurate as it only needed to chime for prayer time); but, despite that it is especially impressive for its status as (probably) the oldest clock in the world.  Restored in 1956, it is operating in the north transept of the Cathedral if you ever want to check it out.

The Tower Tour, proper:

Salisbury Cathedral main hall from above


We met our tour guide and the other 9 on our tour (maximum 12 per trip, book ahead!), then after some briefing on the floor we started the ascent.  Our first stop was on some hidden hallways above the main hall.  Over Jackie’s shoulder you can see the new font which flows out the ends to catches which funnel the water back through the main font.  They do baptisms here and the area around it can hold hundreds of family and friends.

Look farther down the main hall and you might be able to make where the tower goes up.  The Cathedral is planted on a marsh and just by luck the stone below continues dozens of meters deeper than the water table (which is about 4 feet deep here).  As a result, the thousands of tonnes of stone that make up the tower have sunk a bit since the 14th century and the first arch is twisted a bit with respect to the second.  The tilt is imperceptible to unaided and untrained eyes, but in the 17th century Christopher Wren was aghast (although another 350 years later it is still standing).  If you follow the line of arches toward the big arch you can see more impressive signs of the subsidence (below, toward the left end of the photo):

Salisbury Cathedral twist 2

Our viewpoint of this scene was standing in front of some stained glass commemorating a visit by Edward III and some of his French relatives (just a wee bit before the 100 Years War started).  The first window has Edward’s crest (then the three lions), that of Charles IV (an array of Fleurs de Lis on a blue background) and some others, and the second had another of the party’s crests but by then they had run out of decorative effects and added this made-up crest to keep symmetry:

Salisbury Cathedral bogus shield glass

Continuing upward, we found ourselves between the ceiling and the lead roof of the great hall.  The bent timbers come from the large branches of trees and are used partly for the convenient shape but mostly because the constant movement from winds helps to strengthen them.  Most of these beams date to the 13th and 14th centuries with some 17th to 18th century repairs requiring new logging to be done.  For the most part, the structure uses tenon and mortise joints held in place by wooden pegs.

Salisbury Cathedral roof supports

It was somewhere along about here that one of our group (not the one shown) started to become overwhelmed.  We still had not entered the steep, narrow, spiral staircases that injected us into the tower but I think the notion of this thing being built by (what modern folk would consider) savages using primitive carpentry and dodgy civil engineering started to get to her.  At various other stops we got stories of thinkgs like tonnes of stone (and the masons installing it) crashing hundreds of feet down to the Cathedral floor.  Most of our footings were on boards that I felt were quite solid but can understand how someone unfamiliar with even modern heavy construction might think better of their holiday trip.  She went down with the group that went up an hour ahead of us.

During one-or-another of the repairs to the roof (I’m guessing the re-leading 20-30 years ago), a craftsmen left behind this fox deep inside where no one was ever likely to see it except 21st century tourists (sort of a sculptural Thomasson):

Salisbury Cathedral hidden sculpture

The tour lasts an hour an a half so you get a chance to experience the bells which are set off by a much more modern clock 50 or 60 feet below them.  The main bell (1.25 tonnes of it) that does the hours rings for close to a minute after the last strike:

Salisbury Cathedral bells

There is graffiti everywhere, mostly left by masons although some of it just in pen or pencil and not especially inspired.  This example from the late 18th century is interesting for its use of the heart shape:

Salisbury Cathedral old graffito

While this batch at the top of our ascent (about halfway up the full spire) was for fundraising…in the late 1980s to ’90s you could buy one of the panes in this replacement window and it would be etched with your inscription:

Salisbury Cathedral window graffiti

But, some of them were just the bored antics of the original craftsmen.  The carpenter that decorated this beam end (which sticks through the spire to the outside to help hold the structure together or apart as the various tension and compression members are wont) was probably just stuck on the scaffolding 200 feet in the air, waiting for the next load of materials to be dragged to the heights:

Salisbury Cathedral structural decoration

Speaking of heights, one of the great disappointments is the next ascent and how inaccessible it is.  You have to be licensed as a steeplejack to climb the series of ladders to the access holes in the narrow bits up there:

Salisbury Cathedral up into the spire

So at our limit, we headed out to the balconies in the sunshine and warmth.

Salisbury Cathedral view from balcony 2

We were able to visit the balconies on the West and North sides but a nesting pair of peregrine falcons has tenancy of the other two.  If I can find a link to the webcams I will add them here as they are currently sitting on two eggs and which ever one is free from incubator duties goes out hunting — they only eat what they catch on the wing and our guide says the carnage can be gruesome with duck feet and pigeon heads and feathers all around.  Here’s a story about last year’s batch:

Salisbury Cathedral up the spire external

Beyond the river to the west you can just make out sheep on the meadows, but that’s not what Jackie’s waving at.  She’s photo bombing the ground based tourists at the bottom of the building.

Salisbury Cathedral photo bombing the tourists



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