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Southern city of wonders

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Slap in the middle of southern England are two wonders of the world. “Nice church -- great rocks” is the modest advertising slogan. You see the soaring spire of Salisbury Cathedral from afar, while Stonehenge literally stops the traffic. I took a short break in this fine old mediaeval “city of five rivers”, the Melchester of Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels and found a destination to stand alongside some of the finest cities of Europe. And with one of the highest pub-to-person ratios in the country as a bonus.

Super stones

They built it without Lottery money, and probably on time and to budget too.
People have gazed in awe at this baffling circle of stones for 3500 years. And
since the advent of the car, they have found a new way. The busy A303 road,
passes within a few hundred metres. We noticed that people kept slowing to
look, oblivious to the lorries bearing down behind them. Whether you visit at
dawn on Midsummer Day, or on a cold spring day like us, you must surely feel
the mysterious magnetism of the place, like the spell of some ancient
computer. The much promised improvements are still far in the future. Best tip
to improve your experience is wait until there aren''t any tourist coaches in
the car park. Chose your time and you may well, like us, still find it
miraculous. And you don''t need a car. The number 3 bus from the centre of
Salisbury takes you all the way. Entry £5.90; free to National Trust members. And they serve a good cup of coffee as you go in.

Splendid spire

So many high rises in the world, but none is so delicate, inspiring and
awesomely beautiful as this. One of our finest cathedral, built in just 38
years. Then, 600 years before the first skyscraper, they added the 404 feet
high spire. Sir Christopher Wren was alarmed at a 27ins inch tilt in the top, but
it hasn''t budged since his day. They offer conducted tours to the top of the
spire for one of the most exciting views in Britain. If you prefer the deep
serenity of ground level, the nave contains what is claimed to be the world''s
oldest clock, dating from 1386. The best preserved of only four surviving
original versions of Magna Carta (1215) is in the Chapter House. If you stay
the night, you must walk back through the precinct to see this awesome place
in its floodlit glory.

D-Day diners

The Haunch of Venison, one of the city''s top restaurants, is so old (circa
1320) it is off the timeline. The craftsmen working on the Cathedral spire used
to stay here. The enormous oak beams are older still, thought to come from
early sailing vessels. The building rambles like some absent-minded old
deacon. Wander around and you could end up anywhere. Could be on the only
licensed landing in Britain. Or in a bar with an ancient pewter top. Or next to a
working fireplace dating from 1588. Or in a snug where they think Churchill
and Eisenhower planned D-Day. The service is up-to-date, however. Try the
new extension, with a tempting £10 menu, featuring venison sausages with
mash, red onion marmalade and gravy; and mustard & brown sugar baked
Wiltshire ham, followed by vanilla and sloe gin pannacotta. This is deer
country, so the main menu features haunch of Longford estate venison,
fondant potato, green beans. They serve Georges Duboeuf red and white vin
de table for £12. 01722 411313


Caught by Constable

We think of Constable as a Suffolk painter. But a Wiltshire view held him
spellbound. He painted Salisbury Cathedral from the Water Meadows many
times. His glorious paintings played their part in sparing the city''s green fringe
from having a ring road ploughed through them. You can walk beyond the
cathedral, and take Town Path across the meadows where the Avon and the
Nadder meander in elegant loops, and look back for your own take on the
master''s view, and experience one of the most majestic aspects in any British
city. We took another view, walked in from the east from Pitton where the
excellent Silver Plough is worth a call. Two miles out, in a view Constable may
have missed, rising above a fold in the hills came that astonishing Cathedral
spire.

Pub trail

It starts with Stonehenge ales in Amesbury, and finishes 47 stops later in
Salisbury city at Suzette''s Pancake Cafe. In between are 47 stops on the local
council''s imaginative gastronomic trail, which wanders through rolling hills,
across majestic chalk plains, down winding country lanes and across ancient
pastures around Salisbury and South Wiltshire. This itinerary offers optional
stops at a herb nursery, a fish farm, a bison centre and a Norwegian style
smokehouse selling New Forest venison, and a good choice of outlets selling
local and organic produce. If you need a break from all that buying, there are
some splendid pubs in the villages - I would recommend the Horseshoe,
Ebbesbourne Wake. The leaflet tells you where to hire a bike and advises on
bus services.

Fabulous finds

It''s enough to make the Time team gasp. Three sensational finds made locally
within the past few years, on display at the Wiltshire Museum in Salisbury.
They found the ''Amesbury Archer'' during excavations on the site of a new
school, 3 miles away from Stonehenge. This high status warrior or hunter,
unofficial title ''The King of Stonehenge'', was found in one of the richest
burials from that time, with Britain''s earliest gold objects. Then there is the
Monkton Deverill gold torc, an exquisite decoration crafted from a single gold
bar. And the spectacular Warminster Jewel. . Of
the many fine houses is Mompesson House, a perfect example of Queen Ann
architecture which featured in the film Sense and Sensibility, as well as the
National''s Trust'' s Stourhead.

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