The other day we stopped at Old Sarum in Wiltshire. We'd somehow never been—surprising, since it's only a few minutes south of Stonehenge. When taking guests to Stonehenge, I usually try to throw in an extra attraction, since it doesn't take long to tour the stone circle and there's so much to see in the area. Now I'll add Old Sarum to the list of "must see" Wiltshire attractions.
Old Sarum is actually two attractions in one. The castle, originally a motte and bailey structure built shortly after the Norman invasion, is located on top of an Iron Age hill fort. The location was also the site of a Roman settlement, Sorviodunum, and later was occupied by Anglo Saxons.
Unlike many castles in England, Old Sarum was a royal residence, home to several of the Plantagenet kings including Henry II and King John. Henry II spent the whopping sum of £300 on improvements to the castle, and kept his wife Eleanor of Acquitaine under house arrest at Old Sarum.
So it's seen its share of history. Unfortunately, there are few walls left to talk.
The castle was abandoned in the 19th century, yet it still elected two members to Parliament. These so-called "rotten boroughs" were allowed to remain until 1832 when Parliament disenfranchised them.
The spire of Salisbury Cathedral pierces the haze to the south of Old Sarum
The cathedral in nearby Salisbury was completed in 1258 and replaced the cathedral in Old Sarum, but the remains of the original cathedral can be seen outside the castle. Roger of Sarum, a friend of Henry I, was appointed bishop of Old Sarum. He was responsible for much of the building that took place there, taking "a pride unsurpassed within the recollection of our age", according to his contemporaries.
Now, it's a lovely spot for dog walking—from high atop the mound we watched several dogs romping among the ruined cathedral walls.
The size of Old Sarum is impressive—the best view is from overhead. Unfortunately, we didn't bring our light aircraft, so we couldn't get a photo as illuminating as the one on the English Heritage website.
Samuel Pepys reportedly visited Old Sarum in 1668, and claimed the ramparts were "prodigious so as to affright him to be there alone at night." Maybe he'd sampled some of the sloe gin that English Heritage were offering at the wine tasting in the gift shop (they also had a nice dry nettle wine). Or maybe he heard the cries of Eleanor's ghost, or the gossip of servants around the well.
Personally, I like to think it's Eleanor's ghost, walking her little doggie along the ramparts while she sips sloe gin.
If you want to visit Old Sarum, it's about 5 miles south of Amesbury, the village near Stonehenge. It's run by English Heritage. Check their site for opening times, and do try the sloe gin—unless you're driving.