The Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour takes visitors up into the roof spaces of this extraordinary Medieval church. You even get the opportunity to stand at the base of the iconic spire and look up into it. And there is so much more of interest, from historic graffiti to original panes of stained glass. During the festive season, the tour sets off in time to get to the top of the tower to see the Christmas lights over Salisbury below you. As Sarah shows, this small-group guided tour is not just for adults – its great for kids too. So much so that Sarah and her family have made the Twilight Tower Tour part of their family festive traditions.
Sometimes the best way to get children to appreciate an historical site is to visit for a special event or at an unusual time of the day/year and to do something that is out of the ordinary. Trips such as visiting Stonehenge at dawn, the Roman Baths by candlelight, Museums at Night or a behind the scenes tour all add that extra element of adventure that can really appeal to children and pique their interest in visiting historical sites. For Salisbury Cathedral, it is the Twilight Tower Tour that will give children (and adults) that thrill of excitement and of doing something both memorable and unique.
Tower tours are run daily throughout the year for all visitors, but every year during the festive season, Salisbury Cathedral runs special ‘Twilight Tower Tours’. These tend to start at around 3.15pm and are timed so that you are at the top of the tower when it is dusk, and you can admire the stunning view of the Christmas lights of Salisbury twinkling far down below you. They end with a shared cream tea in the refectory, and finish in time for you to attend evensong if wished, or visit the nearby Christmas market. They are the perfect way to end a day of sightseeing in the Cathedral Close, where you can visit the Salisbury Museum, the Rifles Museum or the National Trusts Mompesson House (which is always beautifully decorated for Christmas) before this final festive treat.
The tower tour groups are small, no more than 12 people and they always have a good mix of children and adults. The tour guides are enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable volunteers, who seem to love having children in their groups and who interact with them in such a way that the children thoroughly enjoy it as well as learn a great deal without even trying. Each guide will emphasize different aspects of the cathedrals long history, they each have favourite anecdotes and stories to tell, and will often tailor these to suit the age group of their audience. Judging by Trip Advisor reviews of tower tours, the enjoyment of the tour is universal as they receive high marks across the board from all age groups.
This year was the third time I have taken my family on a Twilight Tower Tour, and it is becoming part of our festive traditions. The cathedral itself is always beautifully decorated for Christmas, with a huge yet tasteful Christmas tree, candles around the font and festive flower displays. The warm lighting and atmosphere just add to the festive mood. Kids love Christmas anyway and this really helps to make them receptive and enthusiastic about their tour.
What is fascinating about Salisbury Cathedral is that it was completed in just 38 years (1220-1258), and so is all in the same architectural style of Early English Gothic. It was in fact the third cathedral in Salisbury. The first was built in 1092 at Old Sarum, but was damaged in a storm not long after consecration. It was rebuilt in stone in the same location, but as the site of Old Sarum was too small, very cold and due to ongoing conflict between the clergy and military, the decision was taken to resite the cathedral elsewhere. As every local knows, the legend is that an arrow was fired by the Bishop from Old Sarum and it was agreed that wherever it landed, that is where the new cathedral would be built. The arrow hit a deer who ran for some distance before dying, and where he died is the site of the current cathedral. The real reason is rather more prosaic and due to land ownership and availability at the time, but it’s the arrow story that everyone remembers. The tower and spire were not part of the original plans and for some years the cathedral did not have either. These were completed by 1320 and were troublesome from the start, adding an extra 6,500 tonnes of weight to a building that was just not designed to carry that weight (and that has foundations only 4 feet deep!).
The nave as seen from the ‘first floor’ of the tower tour.
The tower tour gives a fascinating insight into the changes they had to make to keep the spire on the building, and being able to see inside it gives a far greater depth of knowledge than just admiring from below ever can. It has been the tallest spire in England since the 16th century, as other spires in other cathedrals collapsed over the years. It stands at 123 metres and as you go further up the tower, you see just how that has been achieved and what an amazing accomplishment it is.
Original stained glass window on the West Front.
The first stage of the tour takes you up stone spiral staircase to the first floor with impressive and expansive views over the nave and the interior of the cathedral. Behind you, close enough to touch, is a beautiful stained glass window constructed from medieval glass from the Chapter House and elsewhere in the cathedral. Windows were gradually removed post reformation as images of saints and angels were offensive to Protestant beliefs. This window is an early example of the move to bring stained glass back into religious buildings – as it depicts heraldic shields rather than religious symbolism. You can also see the slight curvature of the walls holding up the tower at the far end of the nave, as well as the buttresses used to fortify the pillars when the spire was added.
From here you reach the under roof space, with all of its wooden beams supporting the roof. Our guide took great pleasure is showing us into this area with the lights down low, then turned them on with a magnificent flourish, just to hear our gasps of amazement. You are presented with row upon row of wooden beams, all seemingly perfectly aligned and with the aromatic scent of old wood. Most of these beams are from the original 13th century construction, and with the cross beams being 40ft long, the children in the tour group were fascinated as the guide pointed out that those oaks would have been alive at the time of the Norman invasion of 1066. He also explained how the builders had to find trees that were the exact shape and curvature that were needed to fit a particular space, and how the trees were sourced from miles around, some even coming from Dublin. The skills used to join these beams together are nothing short of remarkable. You walk the length of this roof space feeling truly awed by the skills required to build it, and enable it to still be standing today. You can also look down on the false ceiling that is painted to look like stone from below but is in fact just slaked lime, and was put in to hide all of the beams above.
The wooden beams supporting the roof, an amazing feat of 13th century engineering.
It is around this point that some of the impressive graffiti pops up, and trying to read it all and work out the dates is fascinating for young and old alike. It continues to adorn the walls throughout the tour, as well as some of the glass panes which were part of a fundraising drive in the 1990s. Some of the designs on these glass panes are very ornate and provide a detailed and intricate contrast to the huge and imposing blocks of limestone and the cavernous spaces of the tower.
Some examples of the graffiti. Children love the second one above – ‘William Jerred fell from this height on the 29th day of March 1864’ (he survived, his coat catching on the part of the cathedral below leaving him hanging there until he could be rescued) but as it is carved very high up next to a window, it adds some shock value.
At the base of the actual tower itself you see a lot more of the adaptations that were necessary to keep it upright. The tower caused trouble right from the start and needed upkeep and repairs early on. Over the years there have been several adaptations and amendments to the design, just to try to keep everything upright. The guide gives a fascinating account of the methods they used, with the most impressive being the metal supports and struts added after a survey of the cathedral by Christopher Wren in 1668, only two years after the Black Death, when, as our guide pointed out, he had plenty of other far more important buildings to build, yet still managed to find the time to save the Salisbury spire. It was he who discovered that the spire was leaning 27 inches off centre and after he put in the supports, it hasn’t budged an inch in the 350 years since. It is up here as well that you can see the bells, which often strike as you are standing next to them (the tour guide does offer ear defenders for those with sensitive hearing, but I’ve never seen anyone who needed them). The cathedral is one of only 3 in the country that doesn’t have a ring of bells. These were originally housed separately in a bell tower on the edge of the cathedral close that was damaged by fighting on the streets in the civil war and later demolished, so what it does have is 4 bells that are struck with a hammer, as they are far too heavy to allow them to ring freely in that tower.
Our tour group ascending a very narrow spiral staircase in between some of the many metal struts keeping the tower firmly in place.
Up some very narrow and steep wooden stairs again takes you to the base of the spire and here you can look upwards and marvel at what you see – the original internal wooden scaffolding still in place, which only touches the external walls at the bottom and which goes all the way to the top.
The view right up the inside of the spire.
The original 13th century wheel is also here, that was used to winch the stone blocks to the top. You can’t go up any further from here as it is for the stone masons only, but you can go outside on to three of the sides of the base of the spire (the fourth one is occupied by peregrine falcons who nest here every year – they even have their own YouTube Channel). The views on all sides are remarkable and as it is twilight by the time you get up here, the lights are on across town. The Cathedral Close itself looks lovely from up here with its imposing and beautiful buildings – as our guide said the priests were all meant to be celibate and had no families, but still felt the need to live in mansions. I was grateful they had as it does mean that the Close is stunning to look at. As we stood up there, admiring the Christmas lights and watching the streams of traffic on Salisbury’s infamous ring road, an enormous full moon appeared as the clouds cleared and the tour group stood in a row gazing in awe and running out of superlatives to describe what we could see. We visited all three sides and the effect was the same.
The journey back down is an easy one and after you have been awarded your ‘tower tour’ badges you are guided to the refectory for a generous cream tea with the rest of your group. When finished, we left to admire the spire from outside (the cathedral always looks amazing lit up in the dark) and then off to the Christmas market for mulled wine and bratwurst.
It’s a very festive yet educational experience and one I cannot recommend highly enough as a way to engage children, even the most disinterested teenager, in a truly impressive historical and monumental site.
A full moon over the lights of the Salisbury and its Cathedral Close.
Other things to see in Salisbury Cathedral that are particularly interesting for children
A recently updated and detailed model of the cathedral being built, with buttons to press and lights that go on, ideal for children and showing them how the site would have looked 750 years ago when it was under construction
- The Chapter House (visit this before the tower tour as it will be closed afterwards) that holds the best surviving copy of the Magna Carta. Although it can be rather underwhelming for younger children unless they have been learning about it at school, it is something everyone should see and it is easy to make it a brief visit.
- The cloisters – it is possible to walk the whole way around these – they have choral music playing which creates a very serene atmosphere, and in one corner is an area for children to investigate and handle items such as stocks, swords etc.
- The font in the central nave – this is a new one which was installed in 2012. It has continuous water running out of the corners and a perfectly level surface that looks like polished stone – it is incredibly reflective and makes for amazing photos. Children seem to love watching the water flowing out of the corners.
The reflective modern font and Christmas decorations.
- There are some very fascinating and detailed medieval tombs but also some newer ones, including that of Ted Heath.
- A tiny chapel – that of Edmund Audley, (Bishop from 1502-1524), which can only fit a few people in and is of great appeal to children purely because it is so small.
- The bumping stone – this is where new choristers are initiated – a practice that has taken place for centuries as leaving quite an indentation in the stone – it’s incredible to think that so many small heads being gently ‘bumped’ into that one stone have managed to erode so much of it away.
- A shop with a really good selection of items, many of which are good quality ones for children.
- Finally, there is often some form of art installation in the cathedral grounds and in recent years these have been fantastic, with people going out of their way to visit them. There was the ceiling filled with paper doves after the novichok attack, the tumbling poppies reflected down the west front for Remembrance Day and this winter, an installation of illuminated balls (Darkness to Light) that flashes a sequence of lights and hums a tune – children have been entranced by this and crowds of people have been gathering at dusk underneath these lights just to watch them.
From Darkness to Light illuminations are on display until 3rd Feb 2019.
Salisbury Cathedral Tower Tour Details
I always book far in advance for the twilight tours as they sell out quite quickly. Tours are also run daily throughout the rest of the year if you are visiting at other times – the tour is still a fabulous experience at any time. Twilight tours cost £17.50 per adult, £12.50 per child or £48.00 for a family of 2+3 and include a cream tea. For the rest of the year, tickets are £13.50 per adult, £8.50 for children and £33 for a family, with no cream tea included in the price.
Wear sensible shoes and warm clothing. There are free lockers at the base of the stairs to put bags and rucksacks in as you really won’t want to carry them.
The tour lasts approximately 90 – 105 minutes.
No under 7s or anyone under the height of 1.2m. I would also say it’s not suitable for people who are unsteady on their feet, or not good in confined spaces.
Getting to Salisbury
Salisbury is in the historic county of Wiltshire, and is easily accessible from all parts of the UK, being centrally located and on all main road and train routes. It often features as part of tours from London that will include Stonehenge, Bath and Winchester. For the independent traveller, there is a huge range of places to stay to suit all budgets with so many places to visit and sites of historical interest. Salisbury makes a great base from which you can explore the wider area including Stonehenge, Avebury, Old Sarum and the many Neolithic sites and barrows. Further details and a good place to start your planning is on the Visit Wiltshire Website.