In preparation for the 2/28 publication of my upcoming novel The Lost Book of the Grail, which is set in the fictional English cathedral of Barchester, I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite English cathedrals, all of which inspired elements of my fiction Barchester Cathedral.
There are a lot of reasons to like Salisbury Cathedral, and it has always been one of my favorites. Because the cathedral was relocated from Old Sarum to the new, planned community of Salisbury in the 13th century, it has one of the largest and most beautiful cathedral closes in all the kingdom. Lovely wide lawns and beautiful residences and other buildings are all tucked away in the center of town, protected by the walls of the close from the noise of the 21st century. John Constable captures this in some of his paintings of Salisbury (though to be fair, he shows it protected from the noise of the 19th century).
Salisbury was also built, unlike most English Cathedrals, in a very short period of time—just 38 years. By comparison Washington National Cathedral in the US took 83 years. This gives Salisbury a unity of architecture that is rare in English cathedrals—and its Early English style is stunning. Because there is no screen between the nave and the choir, the view from the west door to the east end is unimpeded. What a sight!
The first time I went to Salisbury, I visited one of the canons who lives in a house near the cathedral. He made me go upstairs and lie down in his bathtub so that I could enjoy what he called (rightly so) the finest bathtub view in the kingdom. Through the skylight above the tub, I was looking straight up the tower and spire of the cathedral. That spire makes Salisbury the tallest medieval structure in England. If you take the tower tour (an absolute must at Salisbury) you can stand outside at the top of the tower, looking up the spire. It is a dizzying view, but not to be missed. Inside the tower you will see three different sets of metal rods designed to hold the structure together. One was put in by Christopher Wren in the 17th Century, one by George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century, and one in the 20th century. And the tower is still standing.
In the center of the nave aisle is a wonderful addition that I saw for the first time just a few years ago. The modern baptismal font holds water so still that the ceiling bosses reflect perfectly on its surface. Yet, the water is also constantly in motion, flowing out of the four corners of the font and through grates in the floor. The paradox of that water being perfectly still and yet forever moving seems to me a perfect metaphor for God. Often I find the addition of modern elements to a medieval cathedral to be jarring, but in this case (and in the case of the stained glass windows at the far east end) I think Salisbury got it right.
Bethany Davis, one of the two main characters in The Lost Book of the Grail, pays a visit to Salisbury and is especially struck by the font. I could have sent her any number of places, but, from the bathtub view, to the knee wobbling view from the top of the tower, to the modern touches so in harmony with the ancient structure, Salisbury will always hold a special place for me.