Once on board the Southern Region train to Salisbury and wearing my coronavirus facemask, I’m reminded of the infamous Novichok incident.
I was in the city at that time and met a friend in a coffee bar, not more than 50 yards from the affected area, which was subsequently closed down for months. My friend had seen the Skripals earlier on, coming out of a sports shop to walk through Patisserie Valerie (both now closed down) and into the town square on their way to the railway station.
After months of gloom, joy returned to Salisbury only to be dampened again by the outbreak of coronavirus.
Soon the double-decker bus to Stonehenge will be waiting for the world’s tourists again as they emerge from the station entrance. The railway car park is just minutes away from the city centre. There are two choices of pedestrian route, one to the right passing the fields where Constable sat painting the view of the cathedral, or straight ahead down busy Fisherton Street where you can escape the traffic by visiting the old Fisherton Mill, now a centre for artists and their workshops which includes an excellent bistro on the ground floor.
Check out Daniela Forster’s studio while there and study one of her paintings, and with a little imagination enter her colourful, conceptual world. The walk takes you past the clock tower over one of the five rivers of Salisbury, the Avon, being the best known for its abundant fish and paddling ducks, geese and swans, and which, if you should wish to visit, connects with Constable’s riverside fields.
The town centre with its huge market place abuts The Haunch of Venison Chop House, one of the oldest pubs in England, with its severed skeletal hand enclosed behind glass in an alcove on the first floor, pointing across the street to the gateway of the Cathedral Close, where the flag of St George marks something other than the excitement of football.
The extensive cathedral grounds are enclosed like a forbidden city – not one containing criminal gangs, poverty and exploitation but rather a great Maidan – an elegant space with elegant architecture, the natural beauty of towering trees and flower beds, and if you can search it out, ‘The Secret Garden’, as well as one of the great cathedrals of Europe.
It was here within the cathedral gardens that Leslie Thomas settled at the end of his life. Born a ‘Barnardo boy’, thanks to a successful literary career (especially with help from his Virgin Soldiers) he bought a huge house which he renovated, called The Walton Canonry. Outside the grounds in one of the local pubs he could swap jokes with the stuffy ex-Prime Minister Edward Heath, who also retired to a Palladian mansion within the walls, proving, at least between pub and palace, the existence of a mobile society. Heath, of course, edging away from his bodyguard headed for the Cathedral to conduct many musical events in its vast interior during his retirement.
On the green standing in front of the Cathedral is a sculpture of Mary Magdalen, skilfully cast in bronze but peculiarly out of place. Its intent – its spirit, that is – appears to miss the New Testament point. It expresses not a positive, like Edward Heath’s interpretation of sacred music perhaps, or even Thomas’ sometimes rough but honest language, but rather an emanation of confused neurotic delight, as it seems to run in desperation from the great cathedral as if from an empty tomb, heralding not a message of hope but of despair and spiritual exhaustion. It is only my opinion but, outside a Christian context, such a skilful piece of metalwork might be more suitably cast in Stratford on Avon as an imaginative representation of one of Shakespeare’s characters, placed alongside, perhaps, his Thane of Cawdor?
This chill impression is redeemed when attending Evensong or gazing upward to find, among the many stone sculptures that line the walls of the great church, a representation of George Herbert and recalling his sublimely positive poetry. George lived in Old Bemerton and his Vicarage, the house where he wrote Love Bade Me Welcome, is still there, within walking distance from his cathedral sculpture and again just a jaunt across Constable’s fields. Somewhere along that line of lofty, stony figures there must be one of John of Salisbury, philosopher and humanist, student of Peter Abelard, supporter of Thomas Becket, Bishop of Chartres and the most cultured, best read man of his day – that is a day sometime in the12th Century! Obviously, someone worthy of further study.
A short bus ride from Fisherton Street to the village of Wilton stands the grand palace of the Earl of Pembroke, Wilton House, with its collection of Van Dyck and Raphael. Within a stroll from the same bus stop sits the church of St Mary and St Nicholas – an amazing Victorian replica of a renaissance basilica you could visit on a more extended trip outside Naples.
Back within the Cathedral Close another writer, William Golding, is celebrated. He wrote Lord of The Flies while teaching in the church school, a book which won him the Nobel Prize for literature and was no doubt inspired by observation of the behaviour of his pupils.
All in all, Salisbury is a beautiful city, though in some areas blighted by a lack of litter bins, neglected and given over to late-night revellers and drug users, who gather mostly around the otherwise smart Playhouse theatre.
Are the residents and the council aware of the potential of this marvellous city, where visitors from all over the world could happily walk from the station to the centre with an immediate, constant and heightened sense of appreciation for what many English towns could be with a bit more care and attention; or is this simply a utopian vision, shared by many of the great people of Salisbury who have contributed to the city, an aching desire for a reversal of post-war rural development attitudes and careless architectural vandalism?
If you have a jewel why not polish it?
And just think – only one and a half hours from Waterloo!
Salisbury Tourist Information Centre 01722 342860. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fisherton Mill – www.fishertonmill.co.uk
Studio at Fisherton Mill – www.manutiusforsterstudios.co.uk
By David Reid