One of our objectives, at least it was mine, was to mellow out on the pebbly beaches of southern England and just enjoy the space and fresh ocean air. I imagined the water would be something frighteningly cold, but maybe that Gulf Stream effect would improve things in that department.
This plan, of course, depended on one of the least dependable variants on the island: the weather. The forecast that was called for those first few days was anything but beach-friendly, unless perhaps you were a mollusk, so I switched to plan B and herded the girls into the car and made for a few points of cultural interest, thus taking advantage that they were still dumbstruck by the new country and didn’t quite think for themselves.
Eventually they would stop believing me, and I knew this, but until that happened, I took it as my duty to get as much out of them as possible.
The mission for that day was Salisbury, a medieval town known for its outstanding cathedral, and Stonehenge, which doesn’t really need any introduction, I believe. This is the way I feared my girls would see it: a big church atop an acre of moss and a pile of poorly hewn boulders which looked as if they had been stacked by a tribe of four-year-olds.
I did my best to impress upon them the wonders that lay ahead. Salisbury was a terrific town and its cathedral stood out as one of the finest examples of early English Gothic architecture anywhere in the country. And Stonehenge, that speaks for itself. Oh, yes, and all that summer solstice crap and virgins dancing around.
I should note that neither of these places is actually located in Dorset, but rather in the neighboring county of Wiltshire, but it’s all within striking range. Sticking to the secondary roads, which on the whole are the primary roads, and allowing for the inevitable moment of doubt, in 90 minutes or so, we were gliding into Salisbury, also known as New Sarum. Being used to the way you can spot a Castilian town from afar back in Spain, it did startle just how one simply happened upon these places. One minute you were immersed in a thick and wooded lane, and before you knew it, were surrounded by houses and shops.
There is an Old Sarum, by the way, but it is currently a grassy mound of earth girded by an equally grassy ditch just a few miles away. Not much good for a postcard and a pint, but its early history makes it popular among tourists who enjoy using their imagination. The town had once been a thriving cathedral city with a castle overlooking the homes, but its limited size and lack of a river spurred the authorities; especially the church, to relocate down by the Avon to present-day Salisbury. That brought on its decline and practical disappearance.
The original settlement gained notoriety in the 1800s for being the epitome of what is known as a “rotten borough”, a term used to describe a political district which is overrepresented in parliament. In Old Sarum’s case, overrepresentation is an understatement. At one point it was reputed to have had only 7 voters, of whom not one actually resided in Old Sarum anymore. And yet it had the legal right to send two members of parliament. William Pitt, no less, was one beneficiary of this demographic botch.
Old Sarum wasn’t alone, by any means. By the time of the Reform Act of 1832, the problem was widespread in Britain with 152 of the 406 members of parliament being elected by populaces of fewer than 100 voters. The new law effectively disenfranchised 58 towns, with Old Sarum at the head of the pack.
Salisbury was already a major center for centuries by that time. The residents of the former town had wisely improved their position to more fertile land and started afresh. The second cathedral would turn out to be one of the finest examples of English Gothic in the land. It’s the upward movement it evokes. Those spires that truly scrape the sky.
The fact that it was erected when the town was in its infancy is clear by open space that surrounds it. Those marvelous lawns that the English care for so well. We sat on the grass and snacked and then went in and took a look around.
I have been in a lot of cathedrals in my life, so I can’t say they overcome me with awe at this stage – I admit that I was more impressed by the view from exterior – but I did enjoy looking at the stain-glassed windows. There is also a clock which supposedly dates back to the 14th Century, though there is considerable debate about that. Probably the biggest surprise came in the adjoining cloister where you could enter a room and see with your very own eyes the best preserved copy of the four oldest Magna Carta originals in the world. Right there. This was a terribly exciting from a History students’ perspective. Couldn’t quite say I managed to stir the girls with same degree of enthusiasm, but there it was. One of the most important documents in the history of the Western world. I suppose if I had done my homework and read up enough on the place I would have known that, but sometimes not doing so makes travelling so wonderfully full of unexpected moments. That’s what makes travelling so wonderful itself.