This July, Helen from the VisitWiltshire team went on a Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour, climbing 332 steps to the base of the tallest church spire in England to enjoy breath-taking views over Salisbury and the surrounding Wiltshire countryside.

Salisbury Cathedral nave

On a warm July day, I joined a group of twelve people to explore the tower and spire at Salisbury Cathedral. Whilst I had visited the Cathedral before, I had never been up into the tower itself so I was excited to see a different view and learn more about this famous local building!

We were met inside the grand and awe-inspiring Cathedral nave by our guide Chris, who began the tour by briefly explaining the building’s history, and showing us examples of the building materials used in its construction. Salisbury Cathedral is nearly 800 years old (the first foundation stones were laid in April 1220) and is a strikingly beautiful building - no wonder it is an iconic Wiltshire landmark loved by both Salisbury locals and visitors.

Originally, there was a much smaller Cathedral at nearby Old Sarum (the foundations are visible to this day) but in the 13th century, the decision was made to build a new cathedral near the River Avon at Salisbury. It was added to around 100 years later, when the tower and spire were added – an impressive undertaking which required the building to support huge additional weight. Later in our tour, Chris pointed out to the group that some of the stonework within the Cathedral has been forced out-of-line from holding the additional weight of the tower!

Today, the Cathedral is famous for having the largest cloister in the UK, being home to the oldest working clock in the world and housing one of only four of the original copies of the Magna Carta. But there are many more impressive hidden gems within the Cathedral… and today we were here to explore behind-the-scenes within the tower, which boasts the tallest spire in the UK!

Directed by Chris, we began our climb up the first steep spiral staircase from the main Cathedral, pausing to enjoy wonderful views over the nave. There are five staircases in total, with breaks in between (necessary to get your breath back!) giving Chris lots of opportunities to point out interesting features and tell us more about the Cathedral’s history. As we climbed, we got closer to the Cathedral bells which rang out every quarter of an hour; a very atmospheric addition to the tour! The small group size of only twelve people meant there were plenty of opportunities to ask questions, and our guide Chris was friendly and knowledgeable, happy to answer our enquiries. Other guests on the tour were a mix of Wiltshire locals wanting to find out more about Salisbury’s past, and visitors from around the world.

"Things have been done every century to keep the cathedral standing" Chris told us, and as we progressed on the tour we could see evidence of the additions and maintenance work carried out throughout the centuries. Behind the scenes, the Cathedral is a mix of building materials that reflect changes made over spans of hundreds of years. There are huge ancient wooden beams as well as comparatively modern (although still centuries old!) interlocking metal girders. Everywhere you look you can see evidence of the improvement and maintenance work which has kept the Cathedral alive throughout the years. In this context, the modern scaffolding that currently envelops part of the building seems very fitting!

It was wonderful to see this hidden world, a space of wooden beams and metal supports that you would not imagine existing behind the grand stone carvings and gorgeous stained-glass windows on display in the main church. I was intrigued to see the graffiti that had found its way all over these ancient building materials – with carved dates going back for centuries on walls and beams. Chris told us that there is a group of 60 people currently recording all the graffiti in the cathedral! And the Cathedral runs special graffiti tours for anyone who wants to learn more about these fascinating signs from ages past.

Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour

Up and up we climbed, as the staircases became narrower and tighter. Eventually we reached the base of the spire and could see up into its hollow interior, laced with wooden scaffolding and beams, a really fascinating space. This is as far as the public are allowed to climb, but reaching up above us was a network of ten wooden ladders climbing up inside the hollow interior of the spire itself. I don’t normally mind heights... but I wouldn’t want to go up there!

Now that we had made it to the top of the tower - at the base of the spire itself - it was time to enjoy the views. We were able to step out onto the balconies on three sides of the tower, high above Salisbury city, to see the sights. Chris points out the local landmarks you can see; from Old Sarum on the horizon to the remains of the Cathedral’s old bell tower outlined on the grass below us. I even managed to spot the VisitWiltshire offices from here! The views were incredible – Salisbury’s historic buildings laid out all around us and the stunning Wiltshire countryside beyond that.

Sadly, the Cathedral’s famous peregrine falcons, who nest on the tower, were not visible during our visit, but Chris told me that he spots them on around 1 in 3 trips up the tower.

Once we had taken our fill of the spectacular views, Chris led us back down the many staircases to the nave of the Cathedral again, where the group dispersed to look around the main body of the church. As I looked around the main Cathedral once more, admiring the elegant stonework and bright stained-glass windows, I certainly felt a new level of appreciation for the building’s beauty, history and architecture.

At 404 foot (123m) tall, Salisbury Cathedral’s spire is today the tallest in England. Tower Tours run every day throughout the year, lasting around 1 hour and 45 minutes. Advanced booking is recommended

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