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Old Sarum Castle

Home > Wiltshire > Castles | Churches | Outdoor | Picnic Spots | Walks
by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published April 24th 2014
William the Conqueror was here
From Iron Age fort to Norman Castle - Old Sarum Castle bears witness to England's long inhabitation and different phases of rule. Owned now by English Heritage, it would make a great short stop on a sightseeing tour of the area.

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Old Sarum from a distance

There's something magical about imagining William the Conqueror holding court here. Romans, Saxons, Normans - they've all been through, with important rulers stopping in this beautiful location to exercise their power. With a copy of the Magna Carta down in Salisbury Cathedral, the area is steeped in the essence of what makes Britain.

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The approach to Old Sarum

You can take a tour around most of the top of the fort, with a fabulous deep ditch and stunning views. William the Conqueror was quick to realise the site's potential and reinforce it with motte and bailey. It's also the earliest known Northern European example of a medieval house incorporating covered courtyard walks like a cloister. Then, in the 12th century, Eleanor of Aquitaine was kept under house arrest here for having incited her sons to rebel against their father, King Henry II. It wasn't until the 16th century that this site was abandoned entirely in favour of the growing modern city.

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Deep ditch outside the castle grounds

One of the later towers only exists through its base now. Such a tower was known as a donjon in Norman, misconstrued as dungeon by the English, and applied to the tower in more negative terms, as a place of imprisonment. These early foundations are obvious here.

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remains of the lower chapel, Old Sarum

When King John was briefly excommunicated by the Pope, the cathedral was abandoned, and the famous 'new' Salisbury Cathedral was started. The original cathedral remains in outline, and is outside the main fort, providing a great place to dog-walk. It is a unique English example of a cathedral built within a pre-existing, pre-historic structure, and also for developing the earliest unambiguous cloister attached to an English collegiate cathedral.

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The cathedral ruins from above

The spire of the 'new' cathedral is visible even on a raining day, rising majestically over the city. From hill-top fort to valley spire, the two cathedrals also show how habitation patterns and sacred spaces have changed over the years.

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Salisbury cathedral from Old Sarum Castle

This is only a small site, but it would make a great place to go for a walk, absorb the views of Salisbury before exploring it properly, or stop for a picnic.

In addition, English Heritage makes an effort to hold events here, with things such as Roman re-enactment groups performing.

There's plenty of parking, in designated spaces, or extending up to a field. There are toilets available, built into the grass banks! A small visitor shop provides shelter and refreshments, as well as a good place to ask questions and pick up guidebooks and postcards. The staff I encountered were some of the most helpful and enthusiastic English Heritage staff I've ever met - they made my visit even better, answering questions and generally giving it a positive atmosphere.

It's about 1.5 miles north of the Salisbury ring road, so you could walk from town. The site itself is up a steep hill and would not be easily accessible for prams or wheelchairs.
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Why? A unique mix of Iron Age, Roman, Norman & Medieval ruins
When: vary with the season, daily, check website:
Where: Castle Road, Salisbury
Cost: 4 for adults, 2.40 for children, 3.60 concessions, free to English Heritage members
Your Comment
It's nice to see that there are more than just foundations there. The chapel remains make would be interesting to see.
by Bastion Harrison (score: 4|12626) 2732 days ago
Will definitely have to visit here next time I'm in England!
by Carolyn Hopping (score: 2|950) 2730 days ago
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