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  • Sarah


Salisbury's Cathedral Close is the biggest in the country and is home to a variety of houses from stately riverside properties to small cottages tucked amongst them. Most properties are private homes and all you get to see of them is their front facing facades, but once a year for charity, many of them will open their garden gates and allow the public in to take a look behind the scenes.

The cathedral from the grounds of the Rifle Museum

The Cathedral Close is a truly beautiful part of the city, and many would agree with Bill Bryson who famously wrote that, "There is no doubt in my mind that Salisbury Cathedral is the single most beautiful structure in England and The Close around it the most beautiful space. Every stone, every wall, every shrub is just right. It is as if every person who has touched it for 700 years has only improved it. I could live on a bench in the grounds".

The Close contains 21 Grade I listed buildings and countless other Grade II listed objects such as railings, flagstones, bollards and walls. Several buildings are open to the public such as Salisbury Museum, The Rifles Museum, Mompesson House, Sarum College and Arundels, where former Prime Minister Ted Heath lived until his death. Others are open for events, such as the Medieval Hall, or Rack Close, but for the most part, all you can do is walk past the beautiful homes and wonder what secrets they hide.

Once a year however, some of the gardens are opened up to the public to raise money for the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral. The gardens seem to vary each year, probably depending on how confident the owners are feeling about their gardening skills over the past few months, but there are usually about 10 gardens open along with those of the buildings which are open to the public anyway.

A white tent is set up in the grounds where you can buy a printed programme telling you a bit about which gardens are open, and the programme acts as your entry ticket. Each building has a cheerful volunteer on the gate, and you just wave your programme at them for entry. It is a fascinating walk through the Close - not just being able to see how the other half live (properties in the Close can sell for millions) and to nose around secret spaces and eclectic gardens, but also to see the cathedral spire from different angles and viewpoints.

The end of May/early June is the perfect time of year to see gardens as many roses are starting to emerge, the purple headed alliums are in their prime, the gladioli are at their most vibrant, apple trees have the tiniest of apple buds, early clematis is wrapping itself around the arches and arbours and the ever present wisteria is in full, glorious bloom.

The gardens ranged in style from the formal to the quirky, and it was fascinating to see the hidden sculptures, sundials, ponds, water features and wildflower areas, interspersed with the odd butlers sink or rabbit hutch. I particularly liked seeing the evidence of the work that had gone into the garden's creation; the bags of compost stuffed in a corner, trailing hosepipes, trugs and muddy gloves abandoned on a shelf in a cobwebbed shed. One home had their laundry hanging out on a line, it was just too warm and sunny a day to let go to waste, even if their garden was going to be full of nosy crowds.

Some gardens had vegetable patches; neat rows of lettuce, beans and potatoes and other emerging vegetables. Log piles, compost heaps and insect hotels were in abundance, with bird feeders and bird houses hanging from tall branches. Many had quiet, shady corners with a small chair and table tucked away, and you just know it's a peaceful spot where the occupant can rest from their gardening for a while with a good book and a Pimms. In some there were benches positioned to get the best view over the flowers, others had seating facing the river which winds it way around the back of the Close with endless views over the Harnham Water Meadows and the waterfowl which glide past.

Back garden of a house in Salisbury Cathedral Close

Many back gardens gave you wonderful views of the brickwork of their ancient homes, bricked in windows and doors, random tiles, windows in curious places, all showing how the home had evolved over the centuries. You can see how the houses back on to each other, the hotch potch jumble of additions and extensions and chimneys. Some had the Close walls as part of their garden walls, the ancient soft grey, lichen clad bricks a permanent backdrop to their climbing roses.

The event is a popular one, particularly in sunny weather, and the Close is filled with a certain demographic: middle class people d'un certain âge with women in flowery, floaty sundresses, men in chinos and positively everywhere you look, panama hats and wide brimmed sun hats. The snippets of conversation you hear as you shuffle through the gardens include intense discussion of irises, alliums and roses, the merits of dead heading and admiration of the garden sculptures.

Musicians in garden of the Deanery Cathedral Close

Some of the gardens had the owners in situ and visitors would approach to ask them how they cared for a particularly tricky perennial, how often did they prune, what was the name of that flowering shrub? I was particularly amused by a visitor to the grandest of all the gardens, which had a very formal layout including statues, who was bemoaning the boring box hedging the owner had put in, saying it showed a complete lack of imagination and was indicative of 'new money'.

Entertainment is laid on with musicians who travelled around the gardens, and tea and cake is available for sale in the South Canonry, which is the Bishop's Palace. A huge expanse of gardens as it sits on a bend in the river, it was fascinating to see inside the hallowed walls. Many years ago as a youngster at school in the building next door, I caught the headmistress peering over the school walls - she told me she was just trying to sneakily see what the Bishop was growing in his garden. After all these years, I finally got the chance to see for myself.

The Canonry grounds are the perfect place to wander through wild meadow areas with frothy cow parsley as tall as you are, admire the organic vegetable garden and watch the river lapping at the reeds on the bank. People lounged on the grass eating cake and relishing the sunshine in such a beautiful setting. It is the perfect way to end an afternoon exploring the secret gardens of the Cathedral Close.


Visiting the Secret Gardens of Salisbury's Cathedral Close

The event takes place towards the end of May/early June - follow the Friends of Salisbury Cathedral or Open Gardens for exact dates and timings.

Tickets cost £10 each (in 2023) and all proceeds go to charity.

If you are not able to visit when the secret gardens event is on, you can still do a fascinating walk around the Cathedral Close.

Why not combine it with a visit to Salisbury Cathedral or do the Harnham Water Meadows Walk to see the Cathedral and Close from a different angle?


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