Travel Story The majestic cathedral that inspired Constable

A misty dawn with the sun rising behind Salisbury Cathedral., Salisbury, Wiltshire, England.
Photo of Mark Thornton

A miracle of medieval engineering, Salisbury Cathedral's spire was the tallest in the world when it was built, and provided a rich source of inspiration for one of England's greatest landscape painters. 

Just 2km north-west of Salisbury in the southern English county of Wiltshire there is a meadow next to the River Avon where the great landscape painter John Constable once stood.

The spot is on the river’s north bank, close to a water mill, and looking south-east the artist had a spectacular view of Salisbury Cathedral, one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in Europe. 

Its beauty comes not just from its design and perfect dimensions, nor from its splendid spire, the tallest in the world at the time. Unlike most other cathedrals, Salisbury is unencumbered by the encroachments of modern development and can be seen, standing proud, from the surrounding countryside. 

This is mostly thanks to the 32ha Cathedral Close but also to the city planners, who have not permitted any building that might overshadow it.

Like most other people who have gazed on the cathedral, Constable was enchanted. He made several paintings of it, the most famous looking across the River Nadder. But he painted another from the water meadows, further north on the Avon. Years earlier he’d told his wife Maria about the view and described the cathedral spire “dart(ing) up into the sky like a needle”. In 1831, three years after Maria’s death, he painted the picture he had described to her.

The painting from the bank of the Avon is my favourite. I have stood in the same spot many times, the first in 1965 as a young trout fisherman. I already knew the painting and worked out roughly where Constable would have set his easel, in the shadow of Old Sarum, an ancient hill fort. I returned in 2006, having migrated to Australia 25 years earlier, to show my Australian wife Dianne. Nothing had changed.

In the 1960s I lived in Salisbury for four years and regularly walked across the city to fish the Avon. The quickest route was through the Cathedral Close. 

I must have walked past the cathedral more than 50 times and always stopped for a few minutes to admire it and, if the day was warm, to remove my wellies and slip inside to cool off. I’d sit on a bench and often saw the vergers gliding about in their black cassocks. I came to know one in particular, John, who always enquired whether I had been lucky with my fishing.

It was John who told me about the cathedral, how old it was and many other “gee whizz” facts, as he called them, including that it had also been painted by JMW Turner and that work on building it started in 1220 and finished in 1258 — except for the spire.

“The spire was never part of the original design,” John told me. “That was added later and caused lots of problems that builders have been working on ever since.”

The main problem was that the original square tower on to which the spire was built was never intended to carry the extra weight. The medieval builders eased the stress on the structure by installing internal and external stone buttresses, but ever since the spire has required periodic bolstering. It was clad in 20cm-thick yellow Portland stone slabs, and you can still see the original medieval wooden scaffolding criss-crossing its way up inside — perhaps left there during a series of repair programs over hundreds of years because the wood, in part, keeps the spire standing. Some of these English oak timbers started life as trees in 1130 and throughout the building there are 2641 tons of them.

In 1985 an appeal under the patronage of Prince Charles raised more than £6 million ($10 million) to repair the cathedral and in particular the spire. According to Cathedral Friend Ben Sloper, during the repairs a workman at the top was surprised to see the gap between the modern steel scaffolding and the spire slightly opening and closing.

Realising the scaffolding would not move, he accepted the spire itself swayed in the wind “and was thus confronted with the reality of this medieval masterwork”. The cathedral’s former clerk of works Roy Spring, an unashamed romantic who loved his work, said standing on the capstone at the very top of the spire was “like standing on a living being, like feeling the heartbeat of another person”.

A sharp-eyed visitor with binoculars would be able to see that the top of the spire still leans 70cm to the south and 40cm to the west. 

Actually, the repairs were so thorough they amounted to a major rebuild of the whole cathedral. After nearly 800 years of weathering and air pollution, some of the granite figures on the cathedral’s facade had turned to powder. In the worst-affected parts, discreet scaffolding protects visitors from the falling crowns of stone kings.

“There are eminent engineers who say it shouldn’t be standing,” Spring boldly said at the time of the Prince’s appeal. Perhaps it’s the faith of the thousands of Friends of the Cathedral that keeps it up. Or perhaps it’s the divine protection provided by a piece of the Virgin’s shroud reportedly placed in a small container and lodged under the capstone on the spire’s completion.

Prince Charles is among many people to have climbed to the top of the spire, including King Charles II in 1668. According to Sloper: “During the king’s visit a sailor climbed to the capstone as a form of entertainment, supposedly saluting with his legs while standing on his head. After descending he approached the king and dignitaries for some form of reward, whereupon the king, after some deliberation, had him thrown in the clink for his recklessness.”

Unsurprisingly, the public are not allowed to climb the spire now, though you can pay to take a tour of the tower up to the base of the spire 68m above the ground. For those with no fear of heights, there are 332 steps up a spiral staircase. 

Architectural features of the building were inspired by the cosmos. For example, when it was first built there were 365 windows, the number of days in a year, and 8760 marble pillars, the number of hours in a year. 

So far I’ve focused on the building’s exterior. Go inside. It’s vast. The architecture will take your breath away, as Turner’s many paintings attest. 

It’s also the home of one of just four copies of the Magna Carta and a magnificent 630-year-old clock, supposedly the oldest working clock in the world. The clock, which has no face because it rang the time on a bell, has been moved around the cathedral a few times during its life. 

It was put into storage in 1884 and, amazingly, forgotten about until 1929 when it was rediscovered in a dusty attic. Fully restored several times since, it now works, well, like clockwork.

The cathedral nave has magnificent vaulting on the arched ceiling. The cathedral is built from light grey Chilmark Jurassic limestone for the walls, mined nearby. The supporting columns are dark polished Purbeck marble. Looking straight up, you can clearly see some of the columns have been distorted by the weight they support.

The cathedral has a library with many precious manuscripts, including a 10th century Gallican Psalter. The library is open by appointment only and you’re advised to write to the librarian before visiting. 

The cathedral is open all year and entrance is free but to help offset the cost of the upkeep you are invited to make a donation.

Lead image credit: britainonview/David Noton

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