Salisbury Cathedral is considered to be one of the leading examples of early ecclesiastical English architecture. The main body was completed in only 38 years, from 1220 to 1258. The cathedral has the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom (123m/404 ft), the largest cloister and the largest cathedral close (adjacent church buildings) in Britain. Built under a Catholic Britain, the Cathedral was originally called the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Now Anglican, the cathedral contains such curiosities as the world’s oldest working clock (AD 1386) and the finest existing copy of the original four copies of the Magna Carta.

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The new cathedral was paid for by donations, principally by all the canons and vicars of South East England, who were asked to contribute a fixed annual sum until its completion. The owner of Teffont Evias quarry contributed most of the stone free of charge. To help build a cathedral was to do a good work and pave the way to heaven.

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Legend has it that the Bishop of Old Sarum shot an arrow in the direction he would build the cathedral; the arrow hit a deer and the deer finally died in the place where Salisbury Cathedral is now. Due to the high water table in the new location, the cathedral was built on only four feet of foundations. By 1258 the nave, transepts and choir were complete. The west front was finished in 1265. The cloisters and chapter house were completed around 1280. Because the cathedral was built in only 38 years, it has a single consistent architectural style, Early English Gothic.

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The only major sections of the cathedral built later were the cloisters, chapter house, tower and spire, which at 404 feet (123 m) dominated the skyline from 1320. Although impressive, the spire proved to be troublesome. Together with the tower, it added 6,397 tons (6,500 tonnes) to the weight of the building. Without the addition of buttresses, bracing arches and anchor irons over the succeeding centuries, it would have suffered the fate of spires on later great ecclesiastical buildings (such as Malmesbury Abbey) and fallen down.

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To this day the large supporting pillars at the corners of the spire are seen to bend inwards under the stress. The addition of reinforcing tie beams above the crossing, designed by Christopher Wren in 1668, arrested further deformation. Salisbury Cathedral has been well represented in art and literature, from the paintings of John Constable to the works of William Golding, Edward Rutherford and Ken Follett.

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Our visit was facilitated by London Walks, one of the outfits that helps organise London’s multitudes of tourists into something resembling purposeful pods, fast moving groups on a cultural prowl. Our guide, Hilary, met us at Waterloo Station, purchased the tickets and herded us on the train. It takes an hour and twenty minutes to reach Salisbury, but it is a relaxing way to travel. After lunch, a bus (or coach) picked us up for the ride to Salisbury Plain and the ruins of Stonehenge.

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One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is the remains of a ring of standing stones set within earthworks. It was in use from about 3100BC to 1600BC. It is in the middle of the most dense complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred burial mounds.

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Its exact purpose is not known, but it seems evident that the site is tied to the mounds, and that the stones are aligned with the summer and winter solstice. As Hilary informed us, this was a time when humans were changing from hunter/gatherers to farmers, so the arrival of winter and the renewal of spring would have been profoundly important. You can find out more about Stonehenge than you may ever want to know on Wikipedia.

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Recent analysis of the remains of a Neolithic settlement near the monument indicates that thousands of people traveled from as far as Scotland to the site, bringing their livestock and families for huge feasts and celebrations during the winter and summer solstices. The researchers believe that the builders converged seasonally to build Stonehenge, but not for very long – likely over a period of a decade or so.

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Suffice it say, there is nothing to indicate that the site has ever had anything to do with human sacrifice or Druids. What astonishes us is the sheer physical work involved in the project. The weight of the stones and the distance some of them were transported staggers the imagination. Approaching the site itself is a bit disappointing. It seems smaller than suggested by the pictures, but then it is roped off now, keeping the crowds at some distance. One has nothing but sky and gently rolling farmland for scale. I have to confess that I have added a little colour to the sky in some of the pics. It was chalk white while we were there.

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Our guide was amused to learn that I had visited a full-scale concrete reproduction of Stonehenge in a small town overlooking the Columbia River in Washington State, a couple hours east of Portland, Oregon. The replica was commissioned by an American entrepreneur named Sam Hill. It was his tribute to the soldiers of his adopted county who lost their lives in World War I. Sam was a Quaker pacifist who had been misinformed on a European tour that Stonehenge was a sacrificial site. You can check out my take on a previous post of mine called The Portland Connection.

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The land beneath the site of Stonehenge has changed hands a number of times over the centuries. In 1915, an auction by Knight Frank & Rutley estate agents in Salisbury included “Lot 15. Stonehenge with about 30 acres, 2 rods, 37 perches of adjoining downland.” A local man by the name of Cecil Chubb bought the site for £6,600 and gave it to the nation three years later.

A new visitor centre is in progress, which should keep cars and coaches at some distance. Tourists may have to walk a bit farther than they do now. All to the good. Sacred stones should be approached slowly, always on foot.

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