SALISBURY, England — About 80% of all Americans visiting England never get out of London, which means they haven't seen a priest's hiding hole in a 13th-Century hotel, bought a hat-size Stilton cheese for a few quid at a county town market or chatted with the locals in a village pub. More's the pity.
Salisbury, a couple of hours southwest of London, has the two requisites of an English county town: the most important market in the area and the cathedral. It also has enough history to satisfy the most ardent buff.
The cathedral, begun in 1220, is a pure example of Early English Gothic, having been completed in 40 years without the mixture of styles found in European churches that took centuries to build.
The cathedral has one of four copies of the Magna Charta; nearby Wilton House hosted Ben Johnson, Edmund Spenser, Izaak Walton and the British command planning the 1944 invasion of Western Europe.
Then there's Stonehenge, a few miles north on the immense solitude of Salisbury Plain, perhaps Europe's most fascinating and mysterious prehistoric monument.
Here to there: British Airways, Pan Am and TWA fly you to London-Heathrow non-stop, Air Canada with one in Toronto, Delta in Atlanta. Air New Zealand and British Caledonian go to London-Gatwick. Good train and bus connections on to Salisbury, M3 motorway most of the way.
How long/how much? Two full days for the town and Stonehenge without hurry. We find hotel rooms in the upper-moderate range, but the three below give you a full English breakfast plus one other meal at friendly prices. Dining elsewhere in town is moderate.
A few fast facts: The pound sterling was recently valued at $1.45, but the 90-day outlook is for it to go down. Walk the town center with no problems; driving is a lark.
Getting settled in: We've spent a couple of visits careening about the beamed corridors and tilting stairs of Kings Arms (St. John's Street; $58 double B&B, $48 without private bath), a fine old Tudor inn said to be the town's first. Some four-posters, pub and bar, original-timber dining room with the priest's hiding hole that led to bishop's house across the road, a fast way to escape Henry VIII's men during his crackdown on the church. New wing is being built across courtyard with lots of showers. We love the place.
The Red Lion (Milford Street; $78) has been here almost as long, an old coaching stop with some wattle-and-daub parts dating back to town's founding. The courtyard, from which the London Flying Machine coach left for London daily in the 18th Century, has an ancient hanging Virginia creeper. Handsome beamed dining room where you'll feel like a Tudor yourself savoring a fine meal. More four-posters in lovely rooms, a gigantic lobby clock said to be carved by prisoners taken from 1588 Spanish Armada.
Very central, like the two above, is The White Hart (St. John Street; $71), another landmark with regal Georgian stone portico, cheery fireplaces crackling in the lobby, afternoon teas. This is an always-busy Trusthouse Forte hotel with every amenity but not quite the patina of first two.
Regional food and drink: Wiltshire is noted for its fine bacon, the rich and succulent slabs that make an English breakfast like no other, and of course Wiltshire ham that is prized around the world. Whatever fat is left over after trimming the above must go into lardy cakes, a white-dough bomb loaded with currants and cholesterol. The county shares fame, or guilt, for having made this one popular with neighboring Hampshire. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Avon, Wylye, Bourne and Nadder, you won't have to scan menus long to find trout and other freshwater fish. Beer and ale go with just about any hardy English dish, but southern counties are noted for their knowledge of and preference for Bordeaux wines, so if clarets are your thing, enjoy.
Moderate-cost dining: Several visits to the Haunch of Venison (Minster Street off Market Square) have left us enchanted with this rustic place built in 1320. Pub is a popular gathering spot, some upstairs tables overlook Poultry Cross, a menu to rally one's spirits. Traditional fare prepared well, the daily menu of pate, joint of the day, three vegetables and apple crumble for $11.50.
Provencal (Market Square) is a better bistro than you would expect in an English country town. Try the homemade garlic sausage, saddle of hare with a wild berry sauce, imaginative treatment of fish and seafood, a variety of the chef's own pastries and tarts, which the British lump together as puddings. An excellent meal here for about $14, with coffee.
Mayor Ivie (2 Ivy St.) goes back to Chaucer's day in their search for ancient English recipes such as roast duckling in rum and honey sauce; Roman beef in red wine, cloves and bay leaves; spinach and lentil pudding. Decor is simplicity itself, building just off High Street.
Fisherton Street is the place to scout for good Indian restaurants, although we found Golden Curry on Minster beside Haunch of Venison excellent.
On your own: Start with the cathedral and its 400-foot spire, the tallest in England. Allow plenty of time for the marvelous houses in the close dating back to the town's early days, some open to the public. Wilton House just west of town is the area's architectural gem. It's Tudor with finishing touches of Italianate, has a Neo-Gothic courtyard and Palladian bridge in the lovely gardens. We spent a rainy afternoon wandering around its handsome rooms, admiring the Earls of Pembroke's fine collection of art and furnishings, the feeling of a Turner landscape across Salisbury Plain from the upstairs windows.
And of course make time for Stonehenge, preferably at early morning or late afternoon.
For more information: Call the British Tourist Authority at (213) 623-8196 or write (612 S. Flower St., Los Angeles 90017) for a brochure on southwest England, "Britain for All Seasons" booklet, maps and guides. Ask for the Salisbury Package.