I had discovered the place on a previous day, but didn’t have time to explore and was inappropriately dressed, so I returned at 10 am on a Sunday morning to have a proper look around.
A fair number of dogs are apparent in the car park – this is obviously the sort of place people bring their pets to for a good old run. I even recognise two great danes from my previous visit, and wonder whether they get brought out here every day, in which case they must be very familiar with it indeed.
As the guidebook (which I read later at home) says, Old Sarum has three main features of interest – the iron age earthworks, the Norman castle ruins, and the site of the old (original) Salisbury cathedral.
When I arrive I immediately notice a signpost indicating ‘Castle’ in one direction and ‘Cathedral’ in another. For a moment I’m confused – surely this isn’t a pathway to the existing cathedral, which lies a couple of miles away in the city centre? But no, it’s to the site of its previous incarnation, which was built around 1000 years ago but was only in use for about 200 before being abandoned (something about the clergy not getting on very well with the garrison at the castle!)
I head for the castle first, and have it virtually to myself for the first few minutes, before an unexpectedly large number of elderly tourists arrive by coach and seem to fill up every corner.
It’s an English Heritage property – or is it National Trust? When are those two going to get together to form ‘National Heritage’, and make their (aggressively promoted) season tickets even better value for money? I buy my guidebook and some postcards, and later return for a nice tall bottle of Sloe Wine as a gift. Unusually for me, I manage to resist a decorative tea-cosy, a CD of early English music and a pink stretchy dragon from the children’s section.
It’s a lovely castle ruin to explore – mainly grass-covered hillocks, with a small number of nooks and crannies to investigate, and a few ruined stairways and ancient privies to marvel at. But the best thing is the views. All around are vistas of Wiltshire countryside – fields of ripening corn, wonderful copses of trees, meadows full of grazing cattle and ponies, and in one direction, a rather large and interesting pig farm. (Well, it’s interesting to me by virtue of being a pig farm – which is not the sort of thing I see every day. I’ve no idea if it’s particularly interesting, as pig farms go.)
Of course you can see the town of Salisbury with its ‘proper’ cathedral, not far away, and I’m struck by how very surrounded by countryside it is. Doubtless this is taken for granted by Salisbury residents and country folk in general, but when you live deep in the London suburbs, the experience of just stepping or driving along any road for a moment and coming across fields and farmhouses is delightful.
When I sat outside the cathedral in the town on the previous, sunlit, evening, it seemed to me even that the light quality was different here – as if the sunlight reflecting off the cornfields around the city actually imparts a special type of countryside glow. This morning, the sun has yet to break through the clouds, but it’s warm and windy, extremely fresh and pleasant. I sit for a long while on the ruined steps which led into the keep, and look down at the site of the old cathedral, deciding that I absolutely have to visit that as well, even though it means a longer walk than I initially anticipated.
First, though, I walk around the inner ramparts, that is the ridge of the ancient earthworks, and have a ‘near death’ experience, as I almost trip whilst making way for some people passing, and then discover with horror that if I had lost my balance in that particular place, I would in fact have tumbled head first down the very high and very steep grassy slope which someone constructed all those many years ago as a defence.
I consider making a cutting comment to the attendant about the lack of a railing (all this complaining about Health & Safety, but where is it when you need it?) but refrain.
Depositing the wine and my handbag in the car, I face into the wind again and join the procession of over-excited dogs heading for the old cathedral. One black mongrel tries to encourage me to throw his Frisbee, but with his owner nearby, I would never presume.
I walk down the middle of the old cathedral, imagining its aisles and columns, marvelling at the fact that this echo of a grand building has lain here for 800 years, and thinking about how many others before me have explored and reflected on the same ruin. It certainly has an atmosphere – it’s easy to imagine a presence here, a ghost or two from the past.
There are children playing in the old sunken treasury to one side, and running around the traces of the old cloister. What a wonderful place for children to explore! I watch with trepidation as a young girl clambers up onto some old stonework; I’m concerned that she might fall, but she skips across it as nimbly as a mountain goat and jumps down from it with a shout of delight.
Walking a little further, I come up against the outer earthworks. A deep ditch falls away in front of me, filled with nettles and wildflowers and butterflies. I gaze some more at the countryside, making sure I’ve made the most of Wiltshire before my imminent drive home. I hear some jackdaws calling, enjoy the sound of the wind in the trees nearby. The sun is almost in evidence now, clearly it won’t be held back for long.
Turning back towards the inner mound and the castle ruins, I feel obliged to walk all the way around the outside, since I have walked all around the inside. I see the giant slope I would have fallen down from a different angle, and watch a dog scrambling up it, searching for a lost stick.
Maybe it’s this brush with death that makes me feel particularly profound and reflective – or maybe it’s the wind and the open space all around me.
I find myself thinking about writing. Looking round at broad and beautiful countryside views makes you see yourself in the context of the big wide world all about you. Writing is unique in that you don’t need anything – nothing much anyway – to enable it to happen. There’s a whole world of inspiration and all your life experience to draw on. You simply have to pull all the strands of the world, of your life, together, and be the conduit through which they all flow, producing an output of written works. All you need is a piece of paper or a PC screen. You can write anywhere, anytime. An artist needs some outlay in terms of materials, a musician needs an instrument, or an accompanist. A writer is more focused than any of these purely on himself. He can create something out of nothing; the only core thing that is required is some element of inspiration, of skill, and of having a strength of character that means he has something to say and can produce something that others will want to read.
Standing on the hillside, I see myself as the pinch point of an egg timer. All my experience, all life is flowing through me. I must change it and transform it, present it in some meaningful way and disseminate it back into the world, to the audience below me.
Of course finding an audience can be a problem, but that’s sort of the beauty of the written word. It exists as a thing in itself. I can still create, still amass a body of work, even if there’s only a chance that someone will read it in the future.
And so Old Sarum has inspired me to start writing again, and particularly to move away from trying to write fiction, towards trying short, descriptive pieces about the world. About travel, perhaps – about people and places.