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Take your holiday travels to Old Sarum in Salisbury

Posted on 20th July 2016

Visitors to Salisbury are well aware of the city’s vast historical importance. From the times of the Roman occupation of Britain to the world wars of the 20th century, the rolling green hills of Wiltshire have seen some of the most important moments in the history of the island.

Remains of fort at Old Sarum

Thousands of people have come to the city to enjoy Salisbury Cathedral and gaze upon its copy of the Magna Carta. But there is a site that predates the medieval church. Now more ruins than building, the former Roman fort, castle and cathedral at Old Sarum offers some of the oldest reminders of humans in Britain. For those looking to enjoy a cottage holiday in Wiltshire, a trip to Old Sarum makes for a fantastic experience and is the perfect launching point to enjoy some other nearby Salisbury sights.

If leaving the city to travel towards Stonehenge in Aylesbury, visitors will come upon Old Sarum on their way. Also managed by English Heritage, there are four distinct parts to the site. Visitors can enjoy viewing the remains of the Iron Age hillfort, the stone walls of the Royal Castle, Salisbury’s early cathedral, and finally, plenty of walking trails through the beautiful Wiltshire countryside.

Image Credit: Derek Harper

Iron Age hillfort

Historians believe the site was developed as early as 400 BC. Excavations of the area show that Romans occupied the site around AD when they called it Sorviodunum. The fort was the meeting point for the major Roman roads running through the area. The fort’s gates protecting the fort from attack are still present today.

Remains of the Royal Palace at Old Sarum

Experts still debate about the significance of the area. There is evidence of ramparts inside the fort leading to conclusions about it being a Roman military stronghold. There have been artefacts recovered outside of the hillside fort implying civilian camps outside the walls as well – possibly local people hoping for protection by the Roman occupiers.

Following the Roman retreat from Britain, there is little evidence to suggest local Anglo-Saxon tribes used the site further. It wasn’t until the Norman Conquest nearly 1,000 years later that Old Sarum returned to prominence.

Image Credit: Kjetil Bjørnsrud

A Conqueror’s Castle

When William the Conqueror came to British shores, he decided to fortify Old Sarum. More than that, he constructed a castle on the site. A motte was constructed at the centre of the hillfort, and a new set of fortifications and an outer bailey were built as well.

Stone walls at Old Sarum

It became a military base as the Normans solidified the conquest of the island. The Roman roads to and from Old Sarum made it a key strategic point. Over time, the castle grew to include halls, a system of towers and nobility apartments. A new sheriff of Wiltshire was established in the castle as well.

By 1130, the castle was turned over to Roger, the new appointed Bishop of Sarum and regent for King Henry I during the king’s absences in Normandy. Later, the castle also served for a kind of prison for the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II who was accused of inciting rebellion against the king by motivating her sons to rise up against him.

Image Credit: Graham Horn

Salisbury’s other cathedral

Using the castle as a jumping off point, the first Salisbury Cathedral was originally started on the Old Sarum site. The construction was started by decree in 1075. The death of various bishops slowed construction, and the project was initially halted during the 1100s.

Stairways amidst the ruins at Old Sarum

Because of the military presence in and around the castle, there were numerous arguments between the castle’s garrisons and clergy about the future of the cathedral. It was ultimately decided to move the cathedral’s construction to a new site just over two miles away from the castle.

By the 1200s, the current cathedral being built ended support of the Old Sarum castle and its grounds. From then, it slowly became less and less used and eventually was abandoned.

Image Credit: Aurelius99

Walking through history

Although steeped in history, the true appeal of Old Sarum is the beautiful landscape. And throughout the year, you can walk the property and often be transported back in time whilst doing so. The site hosts special events and history re-enactments. There are archaeology events for the kids with hands-on fun. There are knights’ tournaments and battle demonstrations, as well as Roman cavalry displays.

World War II re-enactment at Old Sarum

The entire site offers nearly 30 acres of property. There are numerous walking trails to enjoy. There are footpaths that cross the old fort ramparts and stunning lookouts to see the spires of the famed Salisbury Cathedral. Visitors are allowed to bring a picnic and enjoy nature.

Portions of the property are free to enjoy and dog walking is permissible. For more information about visiting the site, admission prices, and upcoming special events, please visit the Old Sarum website.

Image Credit: fribbleblib

Nearby Attractions

When you have finished enjoying Old Sarum, there are a number of nearby attractions for you to enjoy:

Mompesson House is an 18th-century house located in the Cathedral Close – just over a mile and half away. This Grade I listed house is managed by the National Trust

Just over two miles away, the 21-acre Wilton House is another stately English country home. Its gardens and ornately designed rooms are well worth the visit

Heale Gardens is another architectural gem. Once a hiding place for King Charles II, the beautiful home is under three miles away from Old Sarum