Passing over Salisbury Plain we travel through a world of pre-history and mystery. Everywhere, the unmistakable bare bones of ancient Britain can be clearly seen.
This is an atmospheric place full of unresolved riddles. Burial mounds and hill forts fill the landscape and of course there is Stonehenge, the must-see place for visitors – “that eternal pile which frowns on Sarum’s plain.” (Wordsworth)
When I first visited Stonehenge it was a quiet place and we were able to walk up to these stones. Today, the coaches and cars pour in bringing thousands of visitors who, normally, have to look from a discreet distance, shepherded along the tourist path around the site.
Referring to the huge sarsen stones from ‘nearby’ Marlborough, Bill Bryson comments in ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’:
‘You try pulling an 80,000 pound rock 20 miles over open ground and see how often you use the term ‘nearby’.
Stonehenge, Avebury circle and the much quieter Silbury Hill (above) are still keeping the archaeologists guessing. Conflicting conclusions abound, but these great mounds and monoliths refuse to reveal their secrets. One travel blogger from the US visited Stonehenge and recalls her strange meeting with a small girl on her own clutching a teddy bear. When asked what she thought the stone circle was, the girl replied that she had different ideas each time she came. When pressed as to what she thought today, she said that she thought it was either a circle of frozen stone giants or a ruined castle. Here are some delightful words of childhood wisdom for the ‘experts ‘ to ponder! To see the original post visit the link below———-
Everyone knows about Stonehenge, but few have visited Old Sarum with its well documented medieval history. The exposed hill–top settlements on the site date back to 400 BC. The early Brits, the Romans and the Saxons had forts here before the Norman Conquest established a royal castle. William the Conqueror convened an important assembly here after the Domesday survey results had been presented to him. In 1092 a cathedral was built here and Old Sarum became an important administrative centre.
It looks a very exposed position and inevitably, in 1226 a new cathedral was built down by the sheltered Avon river and a new town, New Sarum -modern Salisbury- developed around it. Eventually the Old Sarum site fell into ruins and up to the time of the Reform Bill in 1832 it was still one of the ‘rotten boroughs’ with no population, yet with two members of parliament!
New Sarum – Salisbury
My son and his family live just down the road from Old Sarum, on the edge of Salisbury. This medieval city is a cultural centre for Salisbury Plain. It was Anthony Trollope’s ‘Barchester’, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Melchester’ and is still a thriving market town, as it was in the days of Charles Dickens’ ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’. Numerous other writers have lived here or woven the city into their novels about ‘this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine’ (Barney Norris). As at Stonehenge, we marvel at how this great cathedral was built, long before the age of modern construction equipment.
Revisiting these ancient sites on Salisbury plain in this post I can hear there the unmistakable air of that ‘still, sad music of humanity’ (Wordsworth’s phrase) which hangs heavily over this place. Generations of pagan forebears lived here in a world of violence, fear and uncertainty. They left behind their piles of stones, burial mounds and a sense of melancholy that pervades these sites. Deserted Old Sarum adds another sad derelict layer of history. But I also look anxiously at the layer that our modern world is leaving, as it moves into an unknown future making its heavily damaging marks on this delicate planet.
But my eye catches sight of that graceful tall spire of the cathedral, the tallest in England, reaching up to the sky above the surrounding Plain. For all its faults, this building is a symbol pointing to a better way, to a higher realm, to the good news of a loving Creator
“The Alpha and the Omega ..who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” Whose Son “will come in the clouds and every eye will see him.” Revelation 1
Those majestic words from the last book in the Bible ring in my ears and give me hope. That first Christmas was just the start of things. That same Jesus will bring human history to its conclusion in his Second Coming. The future of our world is in his hands.
Link to English Heritage, Old Sarum
Link to a child’s wisdom at Stonehenge
Stonehenge Image by Peter Trimming – geograph.org
8 thoughts on “Stonehenge, Sarum and that Spire”
Thank you for sharing this atmospheric post Richard, I’ve always wanted to go to Stonehenge though what I’ve heard about access and visitors suggests it wouldn’t be as atmospheric as I would expect. I’ve heard of Old Sarum but never really knew what it was.
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I can understand how some report coming away from Stonehenge disappointed. Happily the wide expanse of Salisbury Plain is full of quiet, atmospheric sites well off the tourist route. Our son loves living in Salisbury – a great centre for exploring this fascinating area.
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What a beautiful post, Richard. Informative, insightful and wise about the things that are unknown and known.
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Thank you Cynthia. Both the unknown and the known have their own fascination. Salisbury Plain is full of both. The past can be unmistakably seen in the landscape here.
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I’ve been meaning to read this post for some time – thoughtful words describing some of my favourite parts of the world; though I too remember Stonehenge without the coaches, when entry was via a kissing gate. I always feel at home in Wessex. Merry Christmas to you and yours, Richard, and everything good for the year ahead.
Thank you Mike. I too feel close ties with Wessex, especially in remembering quieter days before the crowds. Enjoy your Christmas and good wishes for 2019.
Richard, I enjoyed your essay about Stonehenge. We visited Salisbury many years ago…about 1978. At that time we were able to walk around and marvel at the mysterious stones.
Merry Christmas and all the very best for 2019! Hello to all the family.
Shirley from Calgary
I’m glad you were able to visit Stonehenge in quieter days. Despite the modern crowds Salisbury Plain is still a place full of interest. Very best Christmas wishes to you Shirley and all your family too. We shall be seeing all our family this week.