As I entered through a narrow gate, the sky turned dark and the air felt suddenly heavy, as if a storm were brewing. I found myself in a large grassy valley, most of it unevenly walled, with old buildings and ruins of buildings arranged in a rough circle. Several people were already there, and some had set up camp just inside the entrance. I gazed at them in amazement, for they were not like any people I had seen in Britain so far. They were dressed in furs, and some of the men carried swords and small round shields.
The people were all outside their tents and lean-tos, many of them sharing supper at a long wooden table, and more, including children, sitting on the ground. I was surprised to find that they spoke English. They greeted me with grave courtesy, and offered to let me share their simple food. It looked to me as if they had barely enough for themselves, so I lied and said I was not hungry.
When I asked them who they were, one of the men answered that they were Vikings, and that they came every year to this place to fight against the Saxons, their enemies. I saw then that there was another encampment further away, on the side of the hill.
I looked rather uneasily at the preparations for war -- Salisbury is certainly a place of soldiers! -- and asked when he expected the fighting to begin. I wanted to be far away before it did. He told me that there had been fighting already that day, but that it had stopped for the night. I marvelled then that I had seen no wounded, but he told me that the Vikings were far better fighters than the Saxons were.
Not wanting to walk in the direction of the Saxon camp, for fear the Vikings might hinder me, I decided to go on a tour of the valley. At first I thought it had been used as a fort in the past, but soon I realized that it had been a city. As I walked around the walls I got some idea of just how big it had once been. Behind the old stone walls on the hills I saw stonework that was even more ancient, and I saw several buildings which must have been the homes of gentry, or perhaps garrisons for the local guard.
Walking back toward the entrance, I crossed an open grassy field and saw some evidence of fighting, though most of it had been cleaned up. Beside the field was the Saxon camp. The Saxons wore one-piece belted garments, but had swords and shields much like the Viking ones. As I entered their camp I passed two small Saxon children, dressed just like their elders, practising with wooden swords in a sandpit. They were quite serious and intent, and paid no attention to me.
The Saxons were cooking a stew for supper. Like the Vikings, they were not living in the existing buildings, but had set up shelters and tents. Also like the Vikings, they were polite but clearly wanted me gone. Any I spoke to would respond to me, but as soon as I stopped talking they returned immediately and silently to their chores -- cutting firewood, cooking, sharpening weapons.
They told me that they had been living in Sarum for a long time, and that they had to defend their home against the invading Vikings. They were concerned about the dark sky and what it might bring with the coming night.
There was a sudden scream, which brought many people running, but it was only one of the children, who had apparently been hit in the eye with a wooden sword. He was holding his hand over his eye and screaming. His father scooped him up and carried him into one of the tents, where presumably he would be cared for.
I wished the Saxons the best of luck, and they bid me farewell. I left Old Sarum by the same entrance I had used to enter. Though I had to walk past the Vikings, who surely must have seen me talking with the Saxons, they only waved. Perhaps they were just happy to see me leave.
I was still hungry, so I drove my wagon back to the main road, and there I saw an inn, called the Old Castle, only a few hundred yards away. I parked outside the inn and went in for supper.
Shortly after I had ordered and settled myself comfortably at a table, I was surprised to see some of the Vikings walk in. A little later, a group of Saxons entered as well. For a while the two groups kept to themselves, but as they drank more, they began to become more friendly, and shout back and forth. By the time I left for another night at the Red Lion, they were talking and laughing together.
I hoped that this might bode well for the continuing war the next day, and that perhaps they would find some common ground. It seemed a hopeful and fitting end to my stay in Salisbury, the most war-like place I found in all my travels in Britain.
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