The miracle of Salisbury Cathedral

Nestled in the UK’s Wiltshire downs, Salisbury cathedral rises with the tallest medieval spire in England and the second tallest in Europe. It is from any angle an impressive feat of architecture – especially when you consider when it was built. The foundation stone was laid, just five years after the signing of the Magna Carta, in 1220. The 404-foot (123m) spire was added just 90 years later – almost causing its downfall.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

The foundations of the cathedral are only 28 inches (just over 700mm) deep and built on a barely drained swamp. They were not built to withstand the additional 6,500 tonnes supplied by the spire. Slowly but surely the spire moved out of alignment as you can see today by looking up along the purbeck marble columns.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral – the purbeck marble columns bent and twisted under the weight of the spire

It was soon found that the cause of the movement was variation in the water below the cathedral, so a complex sluce system was developed to regulate the water from the nearby stream. Twice a day a cap is lifted on the floor beneath the spire and a dipstick inserted to measure the level of the water.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral – 28 inches to the water below

Do take the spire tour it is so worth it! Now for a real surprise. As the spire neared completion, consideration was given to removing the crane that had lifted the stones into place. But with the movement, more timber shoring was added inside, preventing its removal. So it was partly dismantled and left in place just beneath the roof. When the spire was damaged by a lightning strike in the 1700s the capstan treadwheel winch was re-assembled and remains in place to this day inside the top of the spire. It is so finely balanced that you can spin it with your little finger!

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral – C14th capstan winch in the spire

From the west end of the building near the original C13th doors you get a great view of the nave along the length of the building leading up to the alter.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral – nave

In the lower centre you can see the new baptismal font – itself an architectural marvel installed in 2012. It comprises a continuously flowing font, so accurately levelled by laser that there is not a ripple to be seen – many people mistake it for polished stone, occasionally placing bags or cameras on it, only to see it sink beneath the water.

The spire tour takes you over the vaulted ceiling and on to spectacular views over the city of Salisbury. And don’t forget to take in the cloisters – where one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carter can be found. This document, sealed by King John in 1215, sets out for the first time the relationship between the king and his subjects. It established the principle of trial by jury, a national system for weights and measures, and an independent English church. Several of its clauses underpin national constitutions around the world, including that of the USA.

As for the miracle? That it still stands, dynamically supported on a thin foundation floating on the waters of the marsh below. All up, this cathedral is well worth a visit if you are in Wiltshire!

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