Monday, 21st September 2021 – Ely
After returning from Goodwood on the Sunday, Monday morning saw us getting off to a slowish start and heading east towards Cambridge and beyond. Our destination was the city of Ely, in Cambridgeshire. Now you may think “city = large centre of population” but actually what it means is a place that has a cathedral. With a population of a little over 20,000 Ely is not big, but it is historic and has heaps of charm in the shape of many old buildings, and a stunner of a cathedral.
It is built on what is referred to as an island, an outcrop of clay that is the highest point in the sogginess that is the Fens. At 85 feet (26 metres), it’s not exactly vertiginous, but it stands out and is visible from a great distance, surrounded now by flat, peat-rich farmland. It also stands on the banks of the River Great Ouse which was once a major transport route until the draining of the Fens in the 17th century. Despite it not being an island any more, the city is still known as “The Isle of Ely”.
The draining of the Fens presumably also put an end to eel fishing, from whence it is believed by some that the name Ely derived originally. Certainly the local tourist information office still celebrates the eel, with all sorts of references to it, and an Eel Festival, held in May every year since the long distant year of 2004! There is also an eel walk, a tour of the historic town. We picked up a leaflet for it at the tourist information office and headed off to the cathedral.
The first church that can be said for sure was on the site dates back to AD 672, an abbey church built at the behest of St Etheldreda who seems to have been a woman with several names. The building now floating above the Fens has been there since 1083, becoming a cathedral in 1109, the Church of St Etheldreda and St Peter. Later it was rebadged, as it were, as the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely, and is the seat of the Bishop of Ely as well as of the Bishop of Huntingdon.
Wikipedia describes it as “architecturally … outstanding both for its scale and stylistic details. Having been built in a monumental Romanesque style, the Galilee porch, lady chapel and choir were rebuilt in an exuberant Decorated Gothic”. I really cannot disagree with that assessment.
The cathedral is built from stone quarried from Barnack in Northamptonshire (bought from Peterborough Abbey, whose lands included the quarries, for 8000 eels a year), with decorative elements carved from Purbeck Marble and local clunch.
There is a moderate fee to enter (£8), though the website does say they won’t deny entry to anyone who cannot afford it. We were happy to pay up, and also happy to find that photography is permitted (as long as you do not photograph any of the choristers) and entered a massive space, largely empty of visitors. The total length of the building is 537 feet (164 m), and the nave checks in at 246 ft (75 m) which makes it one of the longest in Britain. It draws the eye with its stunning vaulting and beautifully painted ceiling. “The ship of the Fens” is glorious inside and out.
Over the centuries, it was steadily built and rebuilt, with the inevitable setbacks that any major building project tends to suffer. Probably the worst was the collapse of the octagonal tower, which was part of the original design. Numerous attempts were made to correct problems from subsidence in areas of soft ground at the western end of the cathedral. In 1405–1407, to cope with the extra weight from the octagonal tower, which replaced the first tower. At the end of the fifteenth century the north-west transept collapsed just to add to the problems. A great sloping mass of masonry was built to buttress the remaining walls, which remain in their broken-off state on the north side of the tower.
One of the fascinating features of the current structure is the free-standing Lady Chapel, linked to the north aisle of the chancel by a covered walkway. It is massive, and was clearly stunning when it was finished. Sadly, the English Reformation saw the destruction of much of the decoration, and the headless statues that remain are a sad reminder of the sort of vandalism often carried out in the name of religion. Any larger statues are long gone, and the relief scenes that were built into the wall had their faces hacked off. It’s still a beautiful space, but you do wonder just how fantastic it would have been.
There is a modern sculpture of the Virgin Mary (2000) over the altar now, by David Wynne (1926–2014). Apparently it is not without controversy, showing as it does a decidedly white, blonde woman, rather than someone who looks like she might have come from Palestine. That aside, it does capture the attention. I liked the glass feathered wings to the side of the altar, and presumably they remain uncontroversial.
The central octagonal tower is the highlight though, described by Nikolaus Pevsner Ely’s “greatest individual achievement of architectural genius”. On the night of 12th February 1322 the original Norman central crossing tower collapsed. A change of plans led to the crossing being enlarged to an octagon, in what is quite a feat of engineering. There’s a model of the structure in the cathedral that shows just how the octagon is held up.
It survived the Reformation, and the English Interregnum, but by the Victorian era was in need of restoration. The man responsible was George Gilbert Scott, a keen exponent of the Gothic Revival. It was his first cathedral commission, and he seems to have made the most of it. He produced a new carved wooden screen and brass gates, moved the high altar two bays westwards, and installed a lavishly carved and ornamented alabaster reredos, a new font for the south-west transept, a new organ case and a new pulpit. He also restored the octagon to something close to its original form.
There was also a short-term exhibition of contemporary stained-glass art in the entrance to the cathedral, should you find yourself there while it is still on. The pieces were for sale, but sadly not at a price that we could consider!
Having thoroughly explored the cathedral (and its shop) we headed back across the green to visit Oliver Cromwell’s house, a part of which now contains the Tourist Information office in one of its downstairs rooms. Again, there was a fee to visit (£5.50). For this you get an audio handset that enables you to explore the house and draw your own conclusions about Cromwell, a deeply divisive figure even now. The house is old, the kitchen dating from around 1215, with other parts added later. It has been refurbished to show how it may have looked during Cromwell’s lifetime, and it is one of just two of the former Lord Protector’s residences still in existence other than Hampton Court. There is a good, if small, exhibition explaining the English Civil War and Cromwell’s part in it, and a lot of interactive items that would appeal to small (and not so small children.
We really needed coffee (and cake) after that, so crossed the road to the Poets House hotel.
A restoring carrot cake, and we felt able to walk the Eel path to see if there was anything we’d missed. The city itself is small, quiet and very charming. It apparently went into something of a decline after the Civil War and that may be why it retains so much of its historic infrastructure. It has the riverside, parks and lots of medieval buildings and certainly rewards a closer look. The views of the cathedral are glorious from all sides, especially walking back up through the parks from the riverside.