VISITOR numbers at Salisbury Cathedral have fallen 20 per cent as it feels the impact of the poisonings in the city and the subsequent fall-out. Over the financial year so far, visitor figures are down 16 per cent.
Last week, the two men suspected of poisoning Sergei and Yulia Skripal said on Russian television that they had visited Salisbury to see the cathedral.
The men, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, were identified by police investigating the poisoning. They were said to be agents of the Russian secret police, the GRU, travelling under assumed names.
The pair, interviewed on the Russian state television station RT last Wednesday, denied all the allegations. They had gone to Salisbury after being told by friends that they should visit the “wonderful” town, they said.
Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter, Yulia, were poisioned with the Novichok nerve agent in March (News, 12 March). Later, Dawn Sturgess was killed after accidentally coming into contact with the nerve agent, and her partner, Charlie Rowley, was left in a critical condition (News, 5 July).
In the RT interview, Mr Petrov and Mr Boshirov accepted that they were the men identified on CCTV by the British police, but said that they had travelled to Salisbury as tourists.
Mr Boshirov said: “There’s the famous Salisbury Cathedral — famous not just in Europe, but in the whole world. It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first one ever created in the world, which is still working.”
PAA CCTV image issued by the Metropolitan Police of Ruslan Boshirov (left) and Alexander Petrov at Salisbury train station, on the afternoon of 3 March
The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, told Radio 4’s Today programme last week that it was a “pity” the pair did not spend longer in the city.
He said of their story: “It doesn’t really add up, does it? What do I know? . . . Salisbury is a beautiful city that many people would spend longer in. It’s a pity they didn’t spend longer with their feet on the ground. There’s nothing to link them to the cathedral . . . but there’s no way of proving that.”
The pair explained the brevity of their visit: “The town was covered by this slush. We got wet, took the nearest train, and came back.”
Mr Boshirov also said that he and Mr Petrov “maybe approached Skripal’s house, but we didn’t know where it was located”.
Mr Petrov told the RT editor, Margarita Simonyan: “We came there on 2 March, then went to a railway station to see the timetable. We arrived in Salisbury on 3 March, and tried to walk through the town, but we lasted for only half an hour because it was covered in snow.
“Of course, we went there to see Stonehenge, Old Sarum, but we couldn’t do it because there was muddy slush everywhere.”
President Putin said last week that the pair were innocent civilians, not assassins.
Theresa May’s official spokesman said that the interview contained “lies and blatant fabrications”.
Bishop Holtam said that “it helps to have a story with more of a narrative that we can understand”, and that the people of Salisbury were feeling “more at ease” after the poisonings, after the “hammer blow” of Ms Sturgess’s death.
The new Dean of Salisbury, the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, who was installed this month, last week described the cathedral as “a symbol of hope that is visible for miles around”.
Over the weekend, TripAdvisor blocked new reviews of Salisbury Cathedral on its website after an influx of fake reviews.