Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Old Sarum

Monday 27 May 1998. Old Sarum - if you know what it is you're looking at - always looks magnificent as you approach it. The ancient hillfort was chosen for its strategic position and commands a view of the surrounding countryside for many miles.

It was a public holiday and we found that there was a visit by the "Roman Army" who were drilling and displaying. This had two advantages for us: one, we were able to see some of the display and two, when we took time out to explore the site, everyone else was watching the display!

We have a look at the Romans on the next page. Above, we are already standing within the site of the city and looking across to the inner sanctum, the site of the Norman castle.

To get this far there has been a steep climb and we have negotiated (by means of a modern road) the defensive ditches seen above. Imagine running up and down a couple of these, wearing a helmet and carrying sword, shield etc whilst the locals are pelting you with rocks, slingshot, boiling water or oil and nasty pointy things!

Before you get to the top you have been hurt and some of your friends are dead. By the time you've got through that ditch the locals have all gone into the inner sanctum, destroying or removing the bridge, and notching a fresh supply of arrows to their bows.

Then you reach the inner sanctum. Ditches fill up with time. This is still deep and treacherous enough to require fencing! At the bottom of the ditch will be sharpened wooden stakes. If you fall going down the side you will be caught on one and have to leave the fun of battle to your mates.

On the top of this green bank is a high wooden wall or palisade that must be climbed or broken through once the grassy bank has been climbed. The palisade is lined with unfriendly people.

You are starting to invent the term "Bugger this for a game of soldiers..."

Here we see the remains of the royal palace inside the inner sanctum. Immensely strong thick walls of dressed stone over rough rubble and mortar. The ground floor rooms have been packed with earth to ceiling level to make the walls even more impregnable. Knocking a few stones off is not going to make the castle fall down.

The tops of the walls and the narrow windows are full of people shooting the remainder of their arrows and pouring out the heated contents of their plumbing. Over each doorway are "death holes". These lead vertically down from rooms above the entrance and down the hole heavy objects or boiling liquid can be dropped onto whoever is trying to batter the door down.

If you get this far you are extremely brassed off... Your commander looks for the castle's sewage system and commands you to crawl through it so you can open the door from inside...

Sounds fairly horrible doesn't it? Yet most castle seiges either ended because of treachery from within, because the food (or more likely water) ran out in the castle, or because someone had to worm through the sewage outlet into the castle.
Once inside, they had to think of a way to either fight off all the guards at the door or capture a hostage important enough to secure the obediance of the guards.

Happily, they let us in simply through buying a ticket...

Sarum was abandoned in the 13th Century and the nearby city of Salisbury was developed in its stead.

The once fine buildings were left to decay in the hilltop fortress, but some walls remain, enabling us to form an accurate picture of how the fortress might have looked in its heyday.

In only one or two places are facing stones left. Elsewhere the walls are the rough undressed stone and mortar, giving a somewhat false picture of how the buildings would have looked.

It is extremely rare (if not unknown) for any monument, castle or ruin to be restored in England. Policy seems to dictate that decay is arrested or retarded and any ground is grassed, regardless of whether the appearance of the structure is known or whether the ground was originally paved.

I remember as a child wondering how the grass could have grown inside a cathedral, and I remain unconvinced that the present policy is the correct one. The sound of a horn being blown announces the arrivals of a Roman Legion. We nip off to have a look and will share this with you in the next entry!

Large versions of the photos: all the photographs of this holiday can be found in a set at Flickr

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