‘Mr Pinch had a shrewd notion that Salisbury was a very desperate sort of place,’ Charles Dickens wrote in Martin Chuzzlewit. ‘An exceeding wild and dissipated city … he set forth on a stroll about the streets with a vague and not unpleasant idea that they teemed with all kinds of mystery and bedevilment.’ This weekend, as more observant readers of this column may have noticed, is the inaugural Salisbury Literary Festival. To coincide with this, we’ve been running a short story competition – the Salisbury Story Prize – with the wonderful winning entries by Beatrice Carrell, Isabel Knight and Julia North kindly published in this week’s Salisbury Journal.

The theme of the competition was ‘City of Stories’, partly to tie in with the Salisbury BID publicity campaign over the summer and partly, too, because of how a city is made up of tales both large and small. This week I’ve been preparing for the Literary Walk I’m hosting on Saturday Morning and it’s been fascinating to dip into the different impressions of Salisbury that writers have had over the years.

Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit contains a wonderfully vivid description of market-day: ‘The market-place being filled with carts, horses, donkeys, baskets, waggons, garden-stuff, meat, tripe, pies, poultry and huckster’s wares of every opposite description and possible variety of character.’ He describes the noise and hubbub as ‘a great confusion of tongues, both brute and human.’ Thomas Hardy, who set several novels in the city he called Melchester, saw a place with volume turned down. ‘Melchester was a quiet and soothing place,’ he wrote in Jude the Obscure, ‘almost entirely ecclesiastical in its tone; a spot where worldly learning and intellectual smartness had no establishment.’ The crime writer Dorothy L Sayers, who went to school at Godolphin, also saw the religious reach. ‘As in all cathedral cities,’ she wrote in her debut novel Whose Body?, ‘the atmosphere of the Close pervades every nook and corner of Salisbury, and no food in that city but seems faintly flavoured with prayer-books.’ Some authors have had a more positive experience of the Cathedral Close. Anthony Trollope was working for the Post Office when he visited in the 1850s and found inspiration for the start of his Chronicles of Barsetshire series: ‘In the course of the job I visited Salisbury and whilst wandering around the purlieus of the cathedral I conceived of the story of The Warden.’ The provisional title of William Golding’s The Spire was, funnily enough, Barchester Spire. In his Golding biography, John Carey mentions two particular influences on that novel: firstly, ‘the daily experience of watching the rebuilding of Salisbury cathedral’s spire from his classroom window must have been part of the book’s gestation.’ Secondly, he cites the school’s dramatic society production of The Zeal of the House, all about the twelfth century architect William of Sens, whose own story has echoes in Golding’s novel. That play, in a further tying together sort of way, was written by Dorothy L Sayers.

William Golding taught English at Bishop Wordsworth’s for many years. Many years later, passing through the doors of the school was Barney Norris, whose novel Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain came out to critical acclaim in 2016. ‘There exists in all of us a song waiting to be sung,’ he wrote in his debut, ‘which is as heart-stopping and vertiginous as the peak of the cathedral. That is the secret meaning of this quiet city, where the spirit soars into the blue, where rivers and stories weave into another, where lives intertwine.’ One of the aims of the Literary Festival has been to properly celebrate this remarkable fictional heritage that Salisbury has. As the hundreds of entries for the Salisbury Story Prize have shown, there is a rich well of talent in the city ready to continue that tradition for generations to come.

Salisbury Literary Festival runs from October 27 to 29. Visit salisburyliteraryfestival.co.uk.