A visit to Salisbury is incomplete without a look at the site where Salisbury began, and where you can get unparalleled views of the city and cathedral across a wide sweep of countryside, further enhanced by 360 degree views of the surrounding area.
Old Sarum from above Photograph © Mark Edwards
You can choose to visit the main site of the medieval castle, an English Heritage property, or simply walk for free around the inner and outer ramparts which give you access to the original cathedral ruins, and a glimpse of how life must have been for those living here on this exposed Iron Age hillfort until the early 13th century.
Historical Background of Old Sarum
Archaeologists believe that the original ramparts were built about 400 BC, surrounding the hillfort settlement which probably also served as a refuge and market centre. There is evidence of Roman occupation from 43 AD as it appears in documentary records as Sorviodunum.
By the time of the Domesday Book in 1087 the site had become known as Sarisberie. William the Conqueror chose it for one of the first timber Norman castles, and it is the ruins of this castle, later built in stone comprising keep, courtyard house, well, tower and kitchen, and maintained in good repair until about 1228, that you will visit if you decide to cross the wooden bridge to the former gatehouse and enter the English Heritage site.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William himself came here in 1086 and accepted fealty from the “landholding men of any account throughout England”. Its most famous – if unwilling – resident was Eleanor of Aquitaine, kept here under house arrest for most of the 1170s.
The ruins in the outer ramparts are free to view
The story of the move down to the plain below is often told but is worth a brief summary here. Relations between the clergy centred on the cathedral and the administrative officials centred in the castle deteriorated rapidly at the end of the 12th century. Accommodation for the clergy was in short supply, water was scarce, the fabric of the cathedral in need of serious repair and the site so windy that “those celebrating the divine offices can hardly hear each other speak”.
The decision was made to move down to an already well populated area, using much of the stone from the existing cathedral to build the new one. The legend is that, from roughly where you are standing to admire the view, that an arrow was fired to determine the most favourable area. The arrow hit a deer which ran on until it died of its wounds and, at this spot, the foundations of the new cathedral were laid.
Walking around Old Sarum
From the outer bailey you can climb a short flight of steps on to the grassy ramparts and walk anticlockwise round the narrow pathway which gives you magnificent views to the north of Salisbury and the roads and paths leading up to Stonehenge. (Sturdy footwear is recommended if the weather has been wet as it can get very muddy.)
This leads you in a westerly direction to look over the settlement of Stratford-sub-Castle and the rural landscape leading up to the River Avon and the scenic Woodford Valley. As you turn south you cross the outer bailey and find the ruins of the medieval cathedral, supported by useful information boards showing how it must have looked in its heyday.
Old Sarum can be a beautiful place in the sunshine
Cross to the trees and continue along the path – here the slopes are steep and provide wonderful “slides” for young children (or even big ones) down the chalkface. Following the path eastwards brings you to the exceptional views across to the city and the “new” cathedral, founded in 1220 as the hillfort site was finally abandoned.
As you complete this mile of circular walk you have the option of extending it by going round the outer ramparts to enjoy the spectacular views once more, or indeed going down into the ditch between these outer and inner earthworks to admire the work by our ancestors to defend their early settlement.
VISITING OLD SARUM
How to get to Old Sarum
Postcode: SP1 3SD
Public Transport: The R11 Park and Ride to the Beehive goes past Old Sarum, as do all buses to Amesbury, the Activ8.
The Stonehenge Tour buses from Salisbury Station will drop you here on the way to Stonehenge and collect you on its return.
Buses from Salisbury take 10 minutes.
Walking: You can walk from Salisbury to Old Sarum by several routes. The shortest but least pleasant is on Castle Road, which has heavy traffic. The best route is by following the River Avon which takes approx 50 minutes. Detailed instructions and sites to see on the walk from Salisbury Cathedral to Old Sarum >>
Parking: Old Sarum is 2 miles north of Salisbury just off the A345. The entrance is clearly marked. You may be lucky and find a free space in the layby just south of Old Sarum on the A345. There is plenty of paid parking in the outer bailey. An alternative is to ask permission from The Harvester immediately opposite the site to leave your car and return for coffee or a meal after you have made your visit.
When is Old Sarum open?
Old Sarum is open every day except for 24 - 25 Dec and 1st Jan
November - March: 10am - 4pm
April - October: 10am - 5pm
How much does it cost to visit Old Sarum?
The ramparts, outer bailey and access to the cathedral ruins are free, but you must pay for entry into the remains of the medieval castle (£5.90 for an adult. Concessions available).
Are there any facilities at Old Sarum?
There are loos in the outer bailey near the car park (built over a WWII wireless room and pillbox). There are hot and cold drinks and snacks available in the shop. The Harvester across the road is open for meals. In the summer English Heritage often host events here – such as medieval games, battle re-enactmets and performances of plays.
Useful tips for visiting Old Sarum
It can get very windy on blustery days, and very boggy on wet ones, so dress accordingly.
Dog Walking at Old Sarum
The outer bailey and nearby Hudson's Field are popular with dog walkers. Bear in mind that there are often sheep grazing the outer rings, and dogs will need to be kept on a lead.
Which is the nearest town to Old Sarum?
Old Sarum is on the outskirts of Salisbury. See our Salisbury City Guide for details on how to get to Salisbury, locally owned accommodation, restaurants and shops, further places to visit and things to do.