The Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour takes visitors up into the roof spaces of this extraordinary Medieval church, where you even get the opportunity to stand at the base of the iconic spire and look up into it. The tours run throughout the year, but every Christmas they run extra special festive tours.
Tower tours run daily throughout the year for all visitors, but every year during the festive season, Salisbury Cathedral runs ‘Twilight Tower Tours’. These tend to start at around 3.15pm and are timed so that you are at the top of the tower when it is dusk, and you can admire the stunning view of the Christmas lights of Salisbury twinkling far down below you.
They end with a shared cream tea in the refectory, and finish in time for you to attend evensong if wished, or visit the nearby Christmas market.
The tower tour groups are small, no more than 12 people and they always have a good mix of children and adults. The tour guides are enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable volunteers, who seem to love having children in their groups and who interact with them in such a way that the children thoroughly enjoy it as well as learn a great deal without even trying.
Each guide will emphasize different aspects of the cathedrals long history, they each have favourite anecdotes and stories to tell, and will often tailor these to suit the age group of their audience. Judging by Trip Advisor reviews of tower tours, the enjoyment of the tour is universal as they receive high marks across the board from all age groups.
I have taken my family on a Twilight Tower Tour for three years in a row now and it is becoming part of our festive traditions. The cathedral itself is always beautifully decorated for Christmas, with a huge yet tasteful Christmas tree, candles around the font and festive flower displays. The warm lighting and atmosphere just add to the festive mood. Kids love Christmas anyway and this really helps to make them receptive and enthusiastic about their tour.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUD OF SALISBURY CATHEDRAL
What is fascinating about Salisbury Cathedral is that it was completed in just 38 years (1220-1258), and so is all in the same architectural style of Early English Gothic. It was in fact the third cathedral in Salisbury.
The first was built in 1092 at Old Sarum, but was damaged in a storm not long after consecration. It was rebuilt in stone in the same location, but as the site of Old Sarum was too small, very cold and due to ongoing conflict between the clergy and military, the decision was taken to resite the cathedral elsewhere. As every local knows, the legend is that an arrow was fired by the Bishop from Old Sarum and it was agreed that wherever it landed, that is where the new cathedral would be built. The arrow hit a deer who ran for some distance before dying, and where he died is the site of the current cathedral.
The real reason is rather more prosaic and due to land ownership and availability at the time, but it’s the arrow story that everyone remembers. The tower and spire were not part of the original plans and for some years the cathedral did not have either. These were completed by 1320 and were troublesome from the start, adding an extra 6,500 tonnes of weight to a building that was just not designed to carry that weight (and that has foundations only 4 feet deep!).
The tower tour gives a fascinating insight into the changes they had to make to keep the spire on the building, and being able to see inside it gives a far greater depth of knowledge than just admiring from below ever can.
It has been the tallest spire in England since the 16th century, as other spires in other cathedrals collapsed over the years.
It stands at 123 metres and as you go further up the tower, you see just how that has been achieved and what an amazing accomplishment it is.
The first stage of the tour takes you up stone spiral staircase to the first floor with impressive and expansive views over the nave and the interior of the cathedral. Behind you, close enough to touch, is a beautiful stained glass window constructed from medieval glass from the Chapter House and elsewhere in the cathedral.
Windows were gradually removed post reformation as images of saints and angels were offensive to Protestant beliefs. This window is an early example of the move to bring stained glass back into religious buildings – as it depicts heraldic shields rather than religious symbolism.
You can also see the slight curvature of the walls holding up the tower at the far end of the nave, as well as the buttresses used to fortify the pillars when the spire was added.
From here you reach the under roof space, with all of its wooden beams supporting the roof.
Our guide took great pleasure is showing us into this area with the lights down low, then turned them on with a magnificent flourish, just to hear our gasps of amazement. You are presented with row upon row of wooden beams, all seemingly perfectly aligned and with the aromatic scent of old wood. Most of these beams are from the original 13th century construction, and with the cross beams being 40ft long, the children in the tour group were fascinated as the guide pointed out that those oaks would have been alive at the time of the Norman invasion of 1066.
He also explained how the builders had to find trees that were the exact shape and curvature that were needed to fit a particular space, and how the trees were sourced from miles around, some even coming from Dublin.
The skills used to join these beams together are nothing short of remarkable. You walk the length of this roof space feeling truly awed by the skills required to build it, and enable it to still be standing today.
You can also look down on the false ceiling that is painted to look like stone from below but is in fact just slaked lime, and was put in to hide all of the beams above.
It is around this point that some of the impressive graffiti pops up, and trying to read it all and work out the dates is fascinating for young and old alike. It continues to adorn the walls throughout the tour, as well as some of the glass panes which were part of a fundraising drive in the 1990s. Some of the designs on these glass panes are very ornate and provide a detailed and intricate contrast to the huge and imposing blocks of limestone and the cavernous spaces of the tower.
Some examples of the graffiti. The first one says – ‘William Jerred fell from this height on the 29th day of March 1864’. (He survived, his coat catching on the part of the cathedral below leaving him hanging there until he could be rescued.)
At the base of the actual tower itself you see a lot more of the adaptations that were necessary to keep it upright. The tower caused trouble right from the start and needed upkeep and repairs early on. Over the years there have been several adaptations and amendments to the design, just to try to keep everything upright.
The guide gives a fascinating account of the methods they used, with the most impressive being the metal supports and struts added after a survey of the cathedral by Christopher Wren in 1668, only two years after the Black Death, when, as our guide pointed out, he had
plenty of other far more important buildings to build, yet still managed to find the time to save the Salisbury spire. It was he who discovered that the spire was leaning 27 inches off centre and after he put in the supports, it hasn’t budged an inch in the 350 years since.
It is up here as well that you can see the bells, which often strike as you are standing next to them (the tour guide does offer ear defenders for those with sensitive hearing, but I’ve never seen anyone who needed them).
The cathedral is one of only 3 in the country that doesn’t have a ring of bells. These were originally housed separately in a bell tower on the edge of the cathedral close that was damaged by fighting in the streets during the civil war and later demolished, so what it does have is 4 bells that are struck with a hammer, as they are far too heavy to allow them to ring freely in that tower.
Up some very narrow and steep wooden stairs again takes you to the base of the spire and here you can look upwards and marvel at what you see – the original internal wooden scaffolding still in place, which only touches the external walls at the bottom and which goes all the way to the top.
The original 13th century wheel is also here, that was used to winch the stone blocks to the top. You can’t go up any further from here as it is for the stone masons only, but you can go outside on to three of the sides of the base of the spire (the fourth one is occupied by peregrine falcons who nest here every year – they even have their own livestream.
The views on all sides are remarkable and as it is twilight by the time you get up there, the lights are on across town. The Cathedral Close itself looks lovely with its imposing and beautiful buildings – as our guide said the priests were all meant to be celibate and had no families, but still felt the need to live in mansions. I was grateful they had as it does mean that the Close is stunning to look at.
As we stood up there, admiring the Christmas lights and watching the streams of traffic on Salisbury’s infamous ring road, an enormous full moon appeared as the clouds cleared and the tour group stood in a row gazing in awe and running out of superlatives to describe what we could see. We visited all three sides and the effect was the same.
The journey back down is an easy one and after you have been awarded your ‘tower tour’ badges you are guided to the refectory for a generous cream tea with the rest of your group.
When finished, we left to admire the spire from outside (the cathedral always looks amazing lit up in the dark) and then off to the Christmas market for mulled wine and bratwurst.