Most people think of Salisbury as an historic city. With its fabulous 13th Century cathedral, beautiful walled cathedral close and a city centre packed with gorgeous old buildings, there's something for everyone especially those with a fondness for history. But if you like your history a bit older, you need only take a short trip out of the city, up the hill to Old Sarum, the abandoned city that preceded its medieval successor.
~Me and The Castle~
I've known Old Sarum since I was a small child. It was a regular destination for afternoons out during the school holidays and my family almost always took visitors up there, probably because it used to be free. Mind you we have plenty of old hill forts in the area so we were rather spoilt for choice when it came to running up and down mottes and baileys. My school was nearby and we were regularly marched up there on miserable cold afternoons with clipboards and worksheets and forced to look at the place. In my teens there used to be outdoor Shakespeare performances inside the castle in the summer and my sister and I would go with my mum, taking sleeping bags and deckchairs to find a place on the ramparts and watch the action. One year I was persuaded by my maths teacher to join a particularly dreadful dance troop strutting around during breaks in the Shakespeare performance dressed up in awful period costumes. You could say I have both fond and horrifying memories of the castle!
~The history goes back a long way before ME~
Old Sarum is an Iron Age hill fort that stands overlooking the modern city and it's thought that the first inhabitants were in place way back around 5000 years ago. In the old days one of the key criteria for building a town or village was defence - and with a position on top of a hill that allows clear views for miles in all directions, it's easy to see why it must have seemed the perfect place to build.
Seen from above, the site is laid out in two concentric rings surrounded by deep moats or ditches. The inner ring is the most defensible part and at time of attack everyone would have rushed in and pulled up the drawbridge. This is the part you can only see if you pay the entrance fee (or if you can sneakily borrow your mother's 'residents permit' which allows free entrance). The highlight of the outer ring is the foundations of the old cathedral which predated the modern one (if you can call 13th Century 'modern').
Back in the 11th Century, just 3 years after the Norman Conquest a motte and bailey castle was built at the centre of the hilltop and construction of the cathedral started a few years later. I can imagine William the Conqueror must have been pretty busy but Salisbury was firmly on his priorities. As the population grew it soon became difficult to squeeze everyone into the available space. Getting enough water so far from the nearest river may also have been a problem and at school we were always told that the glare off the chalk used in the construction of the buildings was also upsetting the soldiers. One way or another, it was clear that Old Sarum wasn't a city with a future and legend has it that the finest bowman in the city fired an arrow from the hilltop to determine where the new cathedral and hence the new city should be built. It's nonsense of course because New Sarum (or Salisbury as it's now known) is over 2 miles away but it's a nice story.
I've been married for 12 years and my husband and I regularly visit my parents who now live in the centre of Salisbury. I can't work out how it's possible that I hadn't previously got around to taking my husband up to see Old Sarum. With my mother's 'permit' in hand, we headed up on a sunny Sunday morning to take some photos and have a good look around.
Entrance to the inner part of the castle is by crossing a steep bridge that crosses the deep defensive ditch. As a child I liked to imagine it would be filled with water and ideally crocodiles but neither was the case. It's just steep enough to make it very difficult for anyone to sneak in. We presented the cards at the gate house and headed in. It was a bank holiday weekend and lots of special events were laid on for children including mock-jousting and games running around knocking footballs off posts with swords. We took a stroll around the ruins, getting a feel for the layout of the inner area and realising that it really wouldn't have taken many people to fill the place. I've been so many times that I don't really pay much attention to the details any more and the weather was so fantastic that we spent a lot more time looking at the views than looking at the ruins.
Unless you're REALLY interested in the old walls (and you'll probably need to buy a guidebook to get the details) I don't find too much to detain me in this part of the site. I blame too many school field trips for killing my interest in what many would find a fascinating site. We headed back out, down the bridge to the outer ring which I actually prefer. I love to stand in the area where the cathedral was with the floor-plan picked out in flints around me. This part of Old Sarum is very popular with dog walkers giving their canine friends a really good run on the hillside. The views are fantastic - not only the obvious ones towards the city, but also away from the city towards the air field and across Salisbury Plain. I took a lot more photos of the views than I did of the castle.
Old Sarum is best visited on a warm sunny day when the views are spectacular. Whilst I loved the views I soon remembered that there was a good reason why I hadn't dragged my husband up there before - it's sad and it reflects badly on me more than on Old Sarum, but I don't really find the place all that compelling. If you totted up the amount of time I spent with my back to the castle, loving the views and compared to the time I actually spent looking AT the castle, you'll understand that it's not the castle I love, it's the whole area around it. If you want to save money, you really don't NEED to go inside because the outer ring with the cathedral ruins is free to visit and the views are just as good from here as from the more crowded inner area. On a foggy, cloudy day or if it's raining, I'd suggest to give it a miss.
Footnote - apologies to Peter Gabriel fans. Despite sounding very similar, Old Sarum is totally unconnected to Solsbury Hill which is a shame since that's one of my all time favourite songs. Solsbury Hill is in Somerset
Serum Castle is built upon a Bronze Age Hill settlement. It is called where the Five Rivers meet (read Serum by Edward Rutherford). There are no rooms at present as they are all runined, infact the whole structure is a runin. There was once a much smaller Cathedrel at Serum which was built by the Normans after Hastings. There was Queen Isabella up there who was imprisoned in the doungeon by her husband, who was king at the time. She was realeased when her son came to the throan. Thire tomb is in Salisbury Cathedrel. When the Romans discovered Old Serum they called it Soverodonium. Serum is windswept and open to the elements, it is visited by thousands of tourists each year on thire way to Stonehenge. On the banks there are lots of rabbit warrens, the rabbits only come out during the evenings when the tourists have vanished. Salisbury cathedrel was constructed from stones which were carried down from Serum. The clergy were desperate for a new cathdral, as the one up Serum was too windswept, and there was bickering with the army. Serum has a partly buried in moat which my cousin still managed to fall down! There is also a small farm nearbye, and sometimes the sheep are allowed to roam the battlements. There are ledgends about the area being haunted, some say there is a phantom battle enected most night's. No one has seen this, as no one has dared stay the night in that dark gloomy place. Many butterflies flutter around Serum, and buzzards may be seen hovering over the fields. It is a good place to walk the dog and see some great sunsets. This must have been a wonderful place before the invention of Henry Fords motor car. The place is now owned by The national Trust, I think they charge about £4 to get in. There are daily historis enectments up there like jousing and the English Civil war. Someone even fell into the doungeon after trying to break into the cash till. He was found
the next morning with a broken leg. There is something mysteriouse about Serum and there are many secrets still left to be uncovered.
Not only is Old Sarum Castle a place of historic interest in its own right but throughout the year it holds numerous English Heritage events, which bring history to life and make a great day out. The Castle Old Sarum Castle is an earthwork near Salisbury, which was built in approximately 500 BC, in the Iron Age. In later years a castle and palace were built within the earthwork and in 1226, as with many castles a city began to spring up around the castle, then called New Sarum and now known as Salisbury. The Castle is now mainly ruins but if you visit you can see the earthwork, parts of the pre-historic fortress and buildings from the Norman period. On a lonely winter’s afternoon if you stand high up on the banks of the earthwork and look out across the plain feeling the wind sweep across from Salisbury, you can almost feel the history beneath your feet. The Events Each year the English Heritage puts on an astounding array of events at the Castle. This year there has been an American Civil War Battle, Mediaeval jousting tournament, a display by Viking warriors and also some more spectacular events; one Saturday each year they have a day of ‘Sarum through the Ages’ where your family can happily spend the entire day watching various entertainments. In the inner bailey of the Castle there are living encampments of the people who would have lived at Sarum in various periods of its history; you can watch them carrying out day to day tasks and ask them questions about their lives. In the main arena throughout the day there are various battle re-enactments from different eras; a Roman army, a Napoleonic battle, a world war two skirmish. There is so much to see and do that it can quite easily keep you and your family entertained all day. Another major event each year is the Roman Day. Here you can see Roman battle tactics demonstrated, pagan burials, medical techniques, traditional burials and, f
or the more blood-thirsty, gladiatorial combat – a chance to cheer your hero on and decide whether mercy should be shown to the losing combatant (predictably the audience normally wants to see a death, and you will not be disappointed!). Possibly not for the faint hearted! However, for the young and young at heart, there was also a display of Boudicca’s fight against the Romans enacted by a terrifying army of vegetables. Children are allowed to get involved and they have to hold up the various characters when prompted at certain points in the tale. Boudicca is constructed from a leek, runner beans for arms and her wild hair made from the leek’s roots. The Iceni tribe are the most amusing as a whole row of spring onions with little faces drawn on them. Strange? Indeed, but also educational and extremely entertaining. Entrance to these events normally cost around £6.00 for adults and £4.00 for children. However, English Heritage members are given entrance free of charge and details follow below of how to obtain membership, which if you go to a couple of events a year, as well as visiting other Heritage sights, is very good value indeed. Location 2 miles north of Salisbury off the A345. Admission Information Open April – Sept: 10 am – 6 pm Oct: 10 am – 5 pm Nov – Mar: 10 am – 4 pm Standard admission prices without events: adults: £2.00, children: £1.00. Tel: 01722 335398 English Heritage Membership fees: adult: £28 per annum, family: £49.50 per annum. Details from: English Heritage, Membership Department, PO Box 570, Swindon, SN2 2YR, email: email@example.com or tel: 0870 333 1181. So, enjoy a peaceful day out with an atmosphere imbued with the richness of our heritage, or attend an event and fill your day with excitement and education.
I have lived in Salisbury for many years, and one of the first places we used to go as children, was Serum Castle. The first time I went there was when I was at school, I believe we were doing something about knights and things, at at that time the only thing I knew about knights was when it got dark! I have been to the castle after it has been closed, not inside through. It is very windswept and is a good place to walk the dog. There is an excellent view across the countryside towards the Cathedral and there has also been some strange things seen along the old battlements at night. I think Queen Isabella was locked up there by her husband, and realeased by her son after he became queen in the fourteen hundreds. Someone tried to break into the castle office for some money and fell into the dungeon by accident. the police found him there the next day! For more information about Old Serum read "Sarum" by Paul Rufferford, this is also where the five rivers meet.