After the sudden death of his wife, John Constable painted what has been called “one of the masterpieces of British art”: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. The Romantic artist painted Salisbury Cathedral many times in his life. But with a rainbow arching over a moody landscape, it’s this 1831 version – and view – that stands out.
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This vista of the cathedral, seen from across the River Avon in the suburb of Harnham, is regularly named among Britain’s most beautiful views. Looking up at the cathedral, its spire soaring 123m into the sky, you can see both why Constable chose this spot and why it might be a place of solace for the suffering. Surrounded by tranquil countryside, the cathedral is an astonishingly powerful building, both when lit by the sun, or, as Constable painted it, shadowed by wild, turbulent clouds.
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The Wiltshire cathedral’s foundation was laid on 28 April 1220 and its main body was finished by September 1258. But the whole project, including the West Front, Cloisters and the since-demolished Bell Tower, wouldn’t be completed until around 1266. Its construction was an enormous national event; King Henry III donated trees from Ireland to be used for roofing and doors.
Later, between 1300 and 1320, the cathedral’s tower and spire were dramatically enlarged to the size they are today. At the time, Lincoln Cathedral and London’s St Paul’s Cathedral both had taller spires. But today, Salisbury’s is the only one that remains – and is now the tallest in England.
The first time I walked from Harnham to Salisbury past this famous view, I was around five years old. I have probably walked it 100 times since: on day trips with the family, with groups of friends and later, with girlfriends, as it always seemed effortlessly romantic. This walk would be the first thing I’d do with anyone I was introducing to my home town: along the trail known locally as Broken Bridges, through Harnham and back out towards the cathedral. And I would show them this view.
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Starting in the Lower Bemerton area of Salisbury, the trail takes you on a two-mile trip through quiet, beautiful countryside. The name Broken Bridges is less apt now – the crumbly, dilapidated arches that crossed the many streams have been replaced with more solid structures. It’s not uncommon to see water voles and kingfishers here and, especially on weekdays, you’re as likely to see one of these as you are other people.
The walk is closely associated with George Herbert, the great poet, orator and later rector of Lower Bemerton’s St Andrews parish. Herbert is said to have walked this path twice a week to visit Salisbury Cathedral in the 1630s. Today, a stained-glass window in the cathedral depicts Herbert’s poem Love-Joy.
After a mile or so the rural setting gives way to a small town as you reach west Harnham. After a short (and less picturesque) walk through to the Town Path, suddenly you arrive at the spot where Constable painted 185 years ago. It hasn’t changed much in that time.
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On a recent visit, the sky was blue-grey and less dramatic than the wild storm depicted in Constable’s painting. That storm may have been real; it may also have symbolised Constable’s mental state at the time. After his wife Maria died of tuberculosis in 1828, Constable was devastated. “Hourly do I feel the loss of my departed Angel-God… the face of the world is totally changed to me,” he wrote to his brother.
This part of England certainly lacks the wild beauty of the Welsh countryside, or the bleak but striking coastline of East Anglia. But this view – returned to so often by Constable, is a view that is recognisably and instantly English. It’s the sort of sight former Prime Minister John Major was probably thinking of when he described England as a country of “invincible green suburbs” in 1993. Perhaps that thinking is what makes the view one of Britain’s best.
Carrying on along the Town Path you arrive at Queen Elizabeth Gardens, a small park that bends round toward the Cathedral Close. The cathedral itself remains a major tourist draw for good reason; it’s one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Europe and famously houses the world’s best-preserved copy of the Magna Carta, dating from 1215.
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The Magna Carta (Latin for the Great Charter) was issued by King John as he desperately sought to prevent civil war breaking out across the country. The weakened king was embroiled in struggles with the Church and the cities of England; the charter was the result of negotiations between the king and his increasingly rebellious barons who were demanding rights which, until this point, they had been denied.
The charter set out a legal framework that would go on to shape not just Britain, but constitutional governments around the world. Among its 60 clauses was the right to a fair trial and the securing of human rights – as the charter words it: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” It’s a powerful document and still relevant today. Four of the 60 clauses remain a part of English law. My parents hung a copy of the Magna Carta on their wall.
The version in Salisbury is one of 13 copies which were meticulously written by hand in Latin on sheepskin and sent country-wide as evidence of the king’s decision. You can still see where King John’s seal was once attached.
Now, as then, the towering cathedral can be seen for miles in any direction. As a child, I knew I was nearly home when the spire came into view over the horizon. But nowhere is it as magnificent as it is where Constable chose to paint it. Whether it is or isn’t the best view in the country, it’s an awe-inspiring sight to behold. It is no wonder that Constable returned there in difficult times. As the writer Robert Louis Stevenson once said: “Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral.”
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