A Literary Guide to Salisbury

This literary guide to Salisbury explores the exceptional literary heritage of the city and surrounding areas.

Situated about 70 miles west of London in the county of Wiltshire, Salisbury's magnificent cathedral has the tallest spire in Britain.

The city's literary heritage stretches back to Sir Philip Sidney and Mary, Countess of Pembroke in the late 16th century and on through Michael Drayton, George Herbert, Samuel Pepys, Henry Fielding, William Hazlitt, Anthony Trollope, E.M. Forster, Edward Thomas, William Golding and David Gascoyne to the present day.

In this guide we will visit the landmarks, sites and locations associated with this extraordinary confluence of place, spirit and identity, making connections between the past and present, including:

Samuel Pepys

The diarist Samuel Pepys visited Salisbury on the 10th - 12th June 1668 ‘guided all over the Plain by the sight of the steeple’ of the cathedral and stayed at the George Inn, ‘where lay in silk bed; and very good diet’, on his way to Stonehenge.

He found the town ‘a very brave place with the river go through every street’ (a system of canals for water and drainage) ‘and a most capacious market’.

The heavy old timbers of the George Inn now form the entrance to Old George Mall, where a plaque used to commemorate Pepys’s visit.

Other diarists to visit the city included John Evelyn, Celia Fiennes and Daniel Defoe, also en route to Stonehenge.

Sir Walter Ralegh stayed at the old White Hart Inn in 1618, after a disastrous voyage to the New World, biding his time writing a defence of his exploits, Apology for the Voyage to Guyana, for presentation to an angry King James.

The present seventeenth century building has a classical façade dating from 1820 and a large stone white hart on its dome, described by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4).

Salisbury Cathedral and Close

The jewel in Salisbury's crown is the magnificent Cathedral, which has the highest spire in England.

It is the inspiration for William Golding's novel 'The Spire', in which he dramatises the building of the cathedral. Read more ...

Walking across to Harnham Mill one can look back over the meadows and enjoy the view of the Cathedral as painted by Constable.

Harnham Bridge and Mill

In his Autobiography (1883) Anthony Trollope recalled how when ‘wandering one midsummer evening round the purlieus of Salisbury Cathedral’, he ‘conceived the story of The Warden, from whence came the series of novels of which Barchester … was the central site…’. Read more ...

Figsbury Rings and Winterslow

Travelling east one can visit the iron age hill fort of Figsbury Rings, where E.M.Forster’s view of landscape and the natural world was transformed. The site offers magnificent views over rolling downland back to the city and Cathedral spire.

Further along the road, opposite the turning to Winterslow, is the site of the Pheasant Hotel, Winterslow, where one of England’s greatest essayists wrote much of his work. Rudyard Kipling also visited this hotel. Read more here.

Bemerton and Wilton House

On the edge of the city environs to the west stands the village of Bemerton and St Andrews Church, Bemerton, where the great metaphysical poet, George Herbert, spent the last three years of his life.

Then further west you'll find Wilton, and Wilton House and Gardens, the home of the Earl of Pembroke, where his ancestor, Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), ran a famous literary salon after the death of her brother, Sir Philip Sidney.

Mary Herbert was patron to many poets, including Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Samuel Daniel, Ben Jonson, John Donne and Michael Drayton.

Between 1578 and 1582 her brother, Sir Philip Sidney, was a frequent visitor, and wrote much of his major work whilst at Wilton House:

  • The Arcadia, an account of two princes and their adventures in love and combat
  • Astrophil and Stella, an analysis of love and desire, and
  • A Defence of Poetry, which defends poetry as the highest art and the equal of Nature under God

Mary, who preserved and published her brother’s work after his death in 1586, completed his translation of the Psalms and was the model for Urania in Edmund Spenser’s Colin Clout (1595).

Under Mary’s leadership, Wilton House became a college of learning, poetry and alchemy. It was the spiritual centre of the Sidney-Spenser movement in English poetry, with many links with the poets and writers associated with the Mermaid Tavern in London. Sir Walter Ralegh’s half-brother, Adrian Gilbert, was her resident advisor.

Both Elizabeth I and Charles I visited Wilton House and it was here in 1603 that William Shakespeare, encouraged by Mary’s son, William, the third Earl, visited to see As You Like It performed before King James I.

Old Sarum and Stonehenge

The iron age hill fort of Old Sarum, the original Salisbury and where the first cathedral once stood, lies two miles north of Salisbury. 5,000 years of history, and spectacular views back to the 'new' Cathedral, await the visitor.

Stonehenge has been an integral part of literary pilgrimages to the area since the sixteenth century, accounts of visits to Stonehenge date back to 1562. Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser both refer to Stonehenge in their poetry. Herbert, Pepys, Fielding, Hazlitt, Forster, Thomas and Golding all were drawn to the standing stones.

Pepys went ‘over the plain and some prodigious great hills, even to fright us. Came thither, and find them as prodigious as any tales I ever heard of them, and worth going this journey to see’.

Virginia Woolf, who stayed at Netherhampton House, Wilton in 1903, noted their ‘singular and intoxicating charm’.

Thomas Hardy used what he called the monoliths of ‘The Temple of the Winds’ to light up the figure of Tess Durbeyfield asleep on the sacrificial stone in Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891).