Salisbury Cathedral is famed for its spire which is the tallest in Britain. Rising 55 metres above the tower to make a combined height of 123 m it rises above the city and can be seen for miles around. I wanted to get to see more of this famous landmark so booked a tour of the tower.
With 332 steps each way this is not a tour for the faint hearted but it is an extraordinary way to see the city of Salisbury in a new dimension. The cathedral itself was originally sited at Old Sarum, a couple of miles out of the city but when the new Salisbury was formed the cathedral followed in 1290. Most of the stone came from within 12 miles of the city so the building itself is made from Chilmark stone which is good for carvings. The columns are made from Purbeck marble which is not a marble at all but comes from a freshwater swamp.On looking closely, there are small white flecks. These are the remains of tiny shells. The vaultings are constructed from tufa which is similar to pumice and a form of limestone. The tufa used here came from Cheddar Gorge.
The original bell tower to Salisbury Cathedral was separate to the main building and was destroyed in the English Civil War. It was finally demolished in 1790. The cathedral was enlarged between 1320 and 1370 by the addition of the tower and spire. It was added to over the centuries and remains the tallest in England.
I was guided through a door to the rear of the cathedral to begin walking up this famous tower. Below, a wedding was about to begin and the strains of “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” followed me as I walked up the steps to the first level. I was now at the Triforum- an arcade used for maintenance of the roof area. This ingenious structure avoids damage to the roof by closing any spaces in the wall. It enabled medieval builders to construct a higher tower. The oak in this area was original and dates from the 1250’s.
But what was a carved fox doing on one of the walls? Was this some form of medieval symbolism? It turned out that during the 1980’s a young man aspired to be a stonemason so he carved the fox as his job application- and he got the job!
We walked along the triforium to the West Front Stauary which was a symbol of status. To be on a higher level and looking down through the arches and columns was an incredible sight. The organ played I Vow to thee My Country and the music filled the air as I gazed out at the architecture here. But there were more steps to climb- and we walked onwards and upwards. To the right of me were 13th century stained glass panels- as beautiful today as they were in medieval times.
In the roof space we saw original beams made from oak, most of which came from the New Forest. I learned about the types of posts constructed to strengthen the building and vaulting below. There were double cross beams and some intriguing joinery. We walked through the roof space to the clock tower.
The clock was originally donated to Salisbury Cathedral by the Wiltshire and Berkshire Regiment and has a Westminster chime. There was a lot of medieval ironwork here too to support the tower structure. But the room held something more intriguing- a steep spiral staircase to the next level. We were going higher. It was steep and a little daunting- but I got to the next level where the glass windows told another side tot he history of the tower. Etched in glass were the names of people who had donated to the restoration of the tower building.
Through a narrow passageway and some more steps was the original bell in a small room. In the corner another steep spiral staircase that seemed to stretch upwards forever. This was the tallest spire in England. I climbed upward wondering when we would get to the top. As I walked through the door I heard a bird cry. This was the peregrine falcon that nests in the tower and he was just the other side of the wall.
This was the final part of the tower tour and I was in an eight side room with a structure above me that enabled more detailed maintenance of the tower. Sir Christopher Wren surveyed the cathedral during the 17th century and his designs can be seen today in the nuts and bolts used to secure the tower. There is a small door towards the top of the spire used by the engineers and to change the red light bulb used to warn aircraft. Apparently there is a list of people who want to do that jaw dropping climb outdoors. I was content with the tower tour, especially when I heard the tower swayed in windy weather.
Outside, on the small stone platform I was able to look across to Old Sarum and the city of Salisbury from quite a height. It was a mesmerising view. I reflected on the medieval builders who constructed the spire, with no safety harnesses, and how dangerous that must have been in the 16th century.
Salisbury Cathedral operates tower tours throughout the year. It is advisable to book online in advance as a surprising number of people want to climb those steps and learn more about this beautiful landmark.
For more on Salisbury, here’s my post on Les Colombes.