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Old Sarum

Explore the Avon Valley and fortified Old Sarum.

Distance 6 miles (9.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 557ft (170m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Footpaths, tracks, bridle paths, stretches of road, 12 stiles

Landscape Downland, river valley, castle rampart

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 130 Salisbury & Stonehenge

Start/finish SU 139326

Dog friendliness Keep dogs on leads at all times

Parking English Heritage car park (closes 6pm; 4pm winter)

Public toilets Old Sarum car park

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1 From the car park walk down the access road through the outer bank of the fortified site. Ignore the gates on your left, which provide access to the upper and lower ramparts. Go through the two gates leading to a waymarked and fenced bridle path and follow this until you reach a road.

2 Go through the gate opposite and follow the track ahead. Pass a cottage (Shepherds Corner) and ascend the track. In ¼ mile (400m), descend to Keeper's Cottage and a crossing of paths.

3 Keep straight on, heading uphill and between fields into a wooded area. At a crossing of bridle paths, turn left and descend a tree-lined path. At a boundary marker, bear right and continue to a road.

4 Turn left, then in 50yds (46m), turn right down a metalled lane (cul-de-sac). Cross the River Avon and two further footbridges, then follow the metalled path and drive to a road. For the Wheatsheaf turn left. Turn right and in 50yds (46m), turn left up a lane.

5 Just before cottages and barns, turn left over a stile and walk down the left-hand field edge, crossing two more stiles and fields. Maintain direction across the next field, cross a track and go through the hedge ahead, then in 100yds (91m) reach a stile and road.

6 Cross the road diagonally and take the path down a wooded track. Pass to the left of 'The Bays' to a stile and turn right between the stream and fence. Cross double stiles in the corner and turn sharp left over a stile and turn right beside the stream to a white gate and a metalled drive. Turn left and skirt Home Farm and Little Durnford Manor to a gate and road.

7 Turn right and follow the road for ¾ mile (1.2km) to a staggered crossroads. Keep ahead towards Stratford sub Castle, crossing the stile on your left in 100yds (91m). Follow the right-hand field edge around the churchyard, cross a stile, a metalled path and a further stile and bear half-right to a gate in the field corner. Head down the next field, pass a barn and cross a stile on to a fenced track.

8 Turn left uphill towards the tree-covered ramparts. Keep left at the junction of paths by a gate, then shortly fork right and steeply climb on to the outer rampart. Turn right and follow the path to a gate and Old Sarum's access road. Turn left back to the car park.

Set on a bleak hill overlooking modern-day Salisbury (New Sarum) stand the massive, deserted ramparts and earthworks of the original settlement of Old Sarum. People have lived on this windswept hilltop for some 5,000 years, the outer banks and ditches were constructed during the Iron Age to create a huge hill fort. It was later inhabited by the Romans and several Roman roads converge on the site. The Saxons followed and developed a town within the prehistoric ramparts.

Soon after the Conquest, the Norman invaders realised the camp's strength and built the inner earthworks by 1070. Within the massive hilltop defences they built a royal castle, two palaces, and in 1075, Bishop Osmund constructed the first cathedral. The imposition of Norman rule had a profound effect on English society, in particular upon the Church, remodelling its structure, giving a new impetus to the building or reconstruction of parish churches and encouraging the development of new monasteries and other religious institutions. This is no more evident than at Old Sarum.

Osmund's cathedral set new standards which were widely adopted in other English cathedrals. Instead of being run on monastic lines, it was served by 36 canons living in separate lodgings under the direction of four officers. The architecture was Romanesque and characterised by its lavish scale. Following Osmund's death in 1099, Bishop Roger was responsible for the ambitious rebuilding of the cathedral soon after 1100.

Old Sarum rapidly developed and for 150 years it was a thriving medieval city due to its position at a major crossroads and its central location in southern England. As the cathedral grew more powerful, it was obvious that friction would develop between the clergy and the military governor of the castle at Old Sarum. After Roger's death in 1139, the city went into decline and quarrelling increased between the two powers. The vitality and wealth of the Church, combined with the exposed site, lack of space to expand the cathedral and the shortgage of water at Old Sarum, led to the removal of the cathedral to a new city by the River Avon in the early 13th century. Building work on the new cathedral began in 1220 and was largely completed by 1250.

The castle remained in use until Tudor times and was one of the most notorious rotten boroughs in the country when in 1832, only ten voters returned two Members of Parliament; one was William Pitt the Elder, Prime Minister from 1766 to 1768. Today, it is deserted and you can roam across the 56 acres (22ha) of ramparts and ruins, admiring the Avon Valley views with the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, at 404ft (123m) England's highest spire, dominating the skyline. A fee is charged to view the inner bailey ruins.

What to look for

Just south of Old Sarum, on a hedged bridle path, is the site of the Parliament Tree. A commemoration stone, erected in 1931, marks the spot where William Pitt the Elder, the 18th-century Prime Minister, and another MP were elected when only ten voters returned them to Parliament. This act made Old Sarum one of the 'rotten boroughs' that were abolished by the Reform Act of 1832.

While you're there

Savour the picturesque drive north through the Avon Valley and the Woodford villages. Stop off at Heale Gardens (open all year), an 8 acre (3.2ha) riverside garden noted for its great drifts of snowdrops, early spring colours, varied collections of plants, shrubs and roses growing in a formal setting of clipped hedges, and its magnificent water garden with magnolias and an authentic Japanese Tea House.

Where to eat and drink

Opposite the main entrance to the car park to Old Sarum is the Old Castle which offers traditional pub food, children's facilities and a spacious garden. The Wheatsheaf (halfway through the walk) offers good food and a riverside garden. The entrance kiosk/shop to the Inner Bailey has a tea/coffee machine.

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