Next month is the Salisbury Literary Festival from 17-22nd October. Tom Bromley, the organiser of the event, has written a blog around the literary history surrounding the medieval city of Salisbury. 

Books featuring Salisbury

Over the centuries Salisbury and the surrounding area has provided both a setting for a number of wonderful novels, and also a home to many great writers themselves. Most recently, the playwright Barney Norris, who grew up in Salisbury, published his debut novel, Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain. At the heart of his book is the place he describes as ‘this quiet city, where the spire soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into one another, where lives intertwine.’

Barney Norris

But Barney Norris is by no means the first writer to write about Salisbury. Norris attended Bishop Wordsworth’s School, which from 1945 to 1961 was famously graced with the presence of William Golding – one of the rare handful of novelists to have won both the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was while Golding was a teacher at the school that he wrote his most famous book, Lord of the Flies. However much his observations of pupil behaviour fed into that novel, the setting of Bishop Wordsworth’s certainly influenced his 1964 novel, The Spire. As well as working in such close proximity to the cathedral, Golding’s time at Bishop Wordsworth’s coincided with the rebuilding of the top of the spire between 1945 and 1951 – an echo of his own novel about the building of the medieval cathedral.

While William Golding never specifically names either Salisbury Cathedral or Salisbury as the city in The Spire, other writers have gone one further and renamed Salisbury for their literary endeavours. In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, Salisbury became Melchester for novels such as Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles: the former drew on the experiences of Hardy’s sisters, who attended the College of Sarum St Michaels (now the site of the Salisbury Museum); the latter ends in dramatic fashion at Stonehenge. In Susan Howatch’s work, Salisbury is the inspiration for Starbridge, and a series of six novels she wrote in late 1980s and early 1990s.

Thomas Hardy

For Anthony Trollope, Salisbury is reimagined as Barchester. It was while staying in Salisbury that Trollope had the inspiration for The Warden, the first book in the Barchester Novels – the specific spot where he had the idea was on Harnham Old Bridge one mid-summer evening.

Then there is Kingsbridge in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End: Follett’s Wiltshire setting is fictional, though his Kingsbridge Cathedral at the heart of it clearly draws on Salisbury.

Indeed, Salisbury Cathedral continues to provide many writers with the perfect backdrop to their stories; Cornelia Funke used the Cathedral and the legend of William Longespee for her children’s book Ghost Knight; the cathedral has also featured both in the first novel (Glass) by Alex Christofi and the last book (Almost Heaven) by Leslie Thomas, who lived in the Close for many years.

Salisbury Cathedral

Other writers have taken different parts of Salisbury for their settings. Edward Rutherford’s Sarum offers readers a remarkable historical sweep of the city from prehistory to the present day. In The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens paints a vibrant picture of Salisbury Market that market-goers of today would recognise. Dickens is one of a number of writers to have used Salisbury hostelries for locations. A Salisbury literary pub crawl would take in The White Hart (Martin Chuzzlewit), The Red Lion (Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta) The Cathedral Hotel (the Minster Hotel in Dorothy L Sayer’s Whose Body?) and the Boston Tea Party (where Samuel Pepys stayed in the 1660s, when it was the George Inn.)

Today, the Boston Tea Party is one of the various places around the city where you’ll find the next generation of Salisbury writers tapping away at their keyboards: The Cosy Club, and Culture Coffee are other popular local authorial hangouts. These new writers might have plenty to live up to in terms of the rich history of Salisbury novels, but equally, they have a wonderful setting to draw on for literary inspiration.

Salisbury Literary Festival


The 2018 Salisbury Literary Festival runs from 17-22 October. For tickets and information, click here, and you can find out more on our website too by clicking here.

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