Q) How to spend a rainy day in Wiltshire when getting out is a must, but the weather has taken the outdoorsy options off the table?
A) Wander round a quirkily named museum, peek at some gorgeous historic homes and round it off with coffee and cake at a cosy cafe.
The Museum: Riflemen in The Wardrobe
‘ Riflemen in The Wardrobe’
Sounds like a creative writing prompt or the name of a wartime mystery novel, doesn’t it? It’s actually the unofficial name of a Salisbury museum better known as The Rifles Berkshire & Wiltshire Museum.
It’s a military museum charting the history of the Berkshire and Wiltshire regiments, now known as The Rifles. Please don’t be put off if military history isn’t your thing. This museum is not so much about campaigns of old and regimental history. It’s about people and places and the stories that came with them.
Exhibits are many and varied. There’s a dog who went to war and was decorated by Queen Victoria, beautifully embroidered WW1 postcards and some very interesting additions to military uniform; hat from Afghanistan crafted from yak leather and trimmed with wolf fur, anyone?
The exhibition that drew me in is called, ‘Never Mind About Your Wife!’ and is billed as, ‘A look at the difficult and dangerous lives of the women and families that followed our regiments throughout the centuries’.
The exhibition charts the lives of military wives through history, beginning with days when women ventured onto the battle field with their soldier and then romping through the dangers, perks and evolving living conditions faced by soldier’s wives.
For example, did you know that accompanying families used to live in barracks, screening off their own space as best they could? Or that wives who lost their husbands were not allowed to remain with the regiment? For women posted overseas, this often meant remarrying within the regiment within weeks to ensure security.
One of the most touching exhibits is a beautiful textile tribute to the Cawnpore Massacre. In July 1857 over 200 women and children posted in Bibighar were captured and killed. The bodies were thrown down a well which later became a shrine.
Elsewhere in the museum there is weaponry galore and military kit from through the ages. There’s also a surprising amount of beautiful things, from embroidered flags and postcards to elaborate place settings from the officers mess.
The contents of the museum are fascinating, but the building itself is also rather grand. Dating back to the 1200’s and rebuilt in the 15th century, it was formerly used to store the Bishops robes; hence known as ‘The Wardrobe’. It’s had various uses and residents over the years and each has left a mark.
You’ll also find beautiful gardens to the rear, sadly closed on the day of my visit due to a regimental reunion. I did snap some quick shots from the windows though and will go back another day to wander. Garden only entry tickets are just £2.
Find opening hours, directions and ticket prices here, free entry for serving members of UK & Allied Armed Forces (on production of current Service Identity Document if not in uniform)
The Rifleman’s Table
The best days out involve coffee and cake, don’t you think? The Rifleman’s Table is a cosy cafe tucked in by the museum.
The name gives a nod to the neighbours and the table numbers hold a touch of Rifles heritage but fear not; no military rations here. There are examples of those on display in the museum and they aren’t a bit tempting.
Rifleman’s rations might be grim but the Rifleman’s table offers a warm welcome, a selection of coffees and some flippin’ gorgeous cakes. Biscoff cupcake recommended.
On a dry day you could sit out for Cathedral or garden views. Advisable to book ahead if you can, several walk ins were turned away during our visit.
Cathedral Close, Salisbury
Speaking of Cathedral Close, I can’t pass by this place without going for a wander to admire the historic buildings and pretty corners. It’s a beautiful place in all weather and shouldn’t be missed when visiting Salisbury.
The National Trust has published a short circular walk of the close which begins and ends at Monpesson House, a beautiful 18th-century townhouse with walled gardens now cared for by the NT.
You can read about my visit to Mompesson House gardens here, it too is keeper of a lovely little cafe. I’m saying you should eat cake twice in one day when exploring this beautiful and historic corner of Salisbury, I’m just saying you could if you wanted to.
I know I’m definitely capable of it.