Date walked: 16th February 2014
Map used: OS Explorer 130; Salisbury and Stonehenge
Distance: around 8 miles (that includes a lot of wandering round Old Sarum and some doubling back where the paths were flooded.)
There are public toilets at Old Sarum (before you get into the area that you have to pay for)
This was the last day of our 10 day stay in Salisbury and only the second day where the sun appeared to intend to shine for more than a few fleeting moments. Anne and I had celebrated our 32nd anniversary of us getting together (a very specific event marks the day which I am not at liberty to disclose) the night before at Crane’s across the road from our apartment in 95 Crane Street. It’s a nice restaurant with good food and the very friendly manager had topped up our very enjoyable and well lubricated meal with a couple of glasses of Champagne as a nightcap. So I started the day a bit thick-headed and wasn’t out of the house before 12.
Old Sarum is situated about two miles due north of the current cathedral in Salisbury. Originally an Iron Age Hill Fort, a cathedral was built there at the end of the 11th century, but more of that anon.
My intention was to take a footpath that follows the west side of the River Avon out of the city. Although the river was very high, I knew that at least the beginning of the path was passable as Anne and I had walked as far as the car park near the City Hall in the first few days of our stay. And for the first half a mile or so so there wasn’t a problem.
The storms had brought down a few trees and the frothing torrent of one of the complex of drainage channels was fairly full.
A family of four swans appeared happy to be swimming even closer to the path than usual in their obvious seeking of sustenance from passers-by.
The path passed under the railway line and over a minor road crossing Scammels Bridge before reaching the A36.
Here the swollen waters had filled the underpass to such a depth that the only option was to walk carefully along the top of the wall by the river, stooping so as not to bang my head on the unforgiving concrete.
A little further on the river was over the path to the depth of a few inches so I was grateful that my boots were both waterproof and came up to my ankles.
But a few hundred yards further on I would have needed waders to have kept dry, so I headed into the middle of the adjacent park and made for a bridge where the water was splashing up through the planks but the passage still visible.
It still required a dash over running surface water about two inches deep to get there. The playground to my left was under water but I thought I was going to be alright until I came to a dead-end where the path had been overwhelmed and had been closed off.
My map indicated that an alternative route on the east side of the river existed, passing by the Leisure Centre so I retraced my steps, still managing to stay dry as I sploshed through the field for a second time.
This route though what is designated as the Avon Valley Local Nature Reserve was definitely on higher ground and although the river had transgressed its banks here, it wasn’t so much of a problem as a photo opportunity.
It was around this time that I became aware of the sounds of light aircraft passing by every few minutes and looking up saw a couple of parachutists drifting earthwards.
The path leaves the nature reserve and follows the road past some allotments and through a little suburb called Stratford Sub Castle. Over to the right the site of Old Sarum appears as a small flat-topped hill, but of obviously man-made construction.
Just as the road reached the pretty St Lawrence’s church it was flooded and impassable, but a christening party seemed in good spirits as they three-point-turned their way to find places to leave their cars for the service.
I had never seen such prominence given to the benefactor of a church, his name emblazoned across the base of its tower. Such ostentation!
I took the opportunity of a look around the churchyard and found another unusual feature (at least from my little experience of churchyards). Over to one side were the graves of at least 40 Fist World War victims, their uniform stones carrying dedications from several regiments and a good many of them Australian.
(It seems many had died of their wounds in a local hospital.)
With luck a footpath takes a route just above the road through a field for a few hundred yards and though squelchy it was fine to walk on. The swollen river had all but covered the land by Stratford Bridge and here I took the road climbing the hill to the back of Old Sarum.
In a small pickup parked in a driveway of an unassuming house a bearded man stared out to the roadside, stark still. It took a second look to realise that it was a dummy.
Above the road I saw several people circumnavigating what emerged to be the top of the bank of the outer ditch of the site, and as I climbed up this bank I saw the steep ditch that separates the outer bank from the inner much higher defences.
On the outside of the site on the eastern side was an extensive area of a pig farm and beyond that the Old Sarum airfield that continued to launch little planes and microlights.
The site of Old Sarum is under the management of English Heritage, who have helpfully constructed a bridge across the second deep ditch to the inner part of the site which contains the ruins of the castle and settlement. I decided to walk around the top of the outer ditch first, enjoying the fine view out to Salisbury.
The storms had blown down one large Yew that had been managing to cling to the chalky sides of the ditch for many decades – a sad sight although this was not the only casualty.
The top of the bank is mostly planted with Beech which though clearly had managed to reach maturity, must be very vulnerable in such an exposed spot.
The whole site is well served by good number (but not too many) of explanatory boards showing artists recreations of the place. I don’t intend to try and tell you its history, Wikipedia can do that job, but one such sign that I saw early on did give a wonderful impression of the settlement nearly 1,000 years ago.
The old cathedral lay in the outer bailey and although only a few remnants remain, its outline is clearly visible on the ground.
For the best view of it, though, you need to pay your £3.90 and brave the pushy English Heritage rep that stands guard at the entrance who wants to sign you up for membership. All the National Trust and English Heritage places seem to post these annoying people at their entrances now and it really pisses me off.
The shop does coffee (and ice creams) so I took advantage of this facility to go with my packed sandwich. Overhead the passing microlightists had the bird’s eye view.
The place had clearly captured the imagination of one little Maid Marion who raced around in her satin tunic, firing arrows at her parents.
My route back to Salisbury was far less interesting than the outward one.
I chose a path that skirts the pig farm (next to sheep and Aubracs my favourite farm animal) and then a part of the city that is strung out along the A435.
At a school I took a long flight of concrete steps into this nondescript suburb, finding little of interest or merit in the front gardens, though this Leylandii hedge seemed to me a novel treatment of an unpopular tree.
After some fairly random left and right turns I was back at the riverside walk. Not a spot of rain had fallen but I think the river had risen a good few inches in the last few hours. I was sure (meaning of course, that I was not sure) that his boat was out of the water earlier on.
The family of swans were still cruising their waterside pitch.
Just for a change of scene I took a turn to take me along Castle Street, passing Husseys Almshouses …….
Time for tea and toasted Hot Cross Loaf – an excellent invention (Courtesy of Marks and Sparks). Happy days.