I had discovered while researching my trip to the UK that just 14 miles out of Cambridge was Ely, famous for its cathedral, and where Oliver Cromwell lived for ten years of his life.
The bus took an hour and a quarter to get there, the consequence of stopping at every local bus stop along the way but I had a good look at the suburbs of Cambridge and the surrounding countryside, and watched the locals coming and going, noticing the change in their accents the further away from Cambridge we got.
I’ve often wondered why so many small English towns have such enormous churches but it turns out that usually the churches or monasteries came first and the towns grew up around them. Ely began with a Benedictine Monastery, on an island in the Cambridgeshire Fens, though the monastery was destroyed in 870 by Danish invaders. (Was there anyone who didn’t invade England?)
By 1083 the monks had become extremely wealthy, by what means I’m not sure, and so began the building of a church that would glorify God by its majestic scale. I stopped for my morning caffeine fix at Julia’s tea rooms, knowing I was going to be doing a lot of walking in the next few hours, and then passed through the archway to the cathedral close.
The cathedral is known as ‘The Ship of the Fens’ because it can be seen for miles around. It sprawls across a swathe of lawns and meadows, dwarfing everything around it.
The nave is the third-longest in the UK, and the same length as Ely’s main street, just to get things in perspective. Looking up I discovered a ceiling completely covered with painted panels. The panels depict the ancestry of Jesus, from Adam through Abraham and David to Mary.
Over the central cross of the church is the Octagon Tower, created after the collapse of the original Norman Tower. The tower was created using eight 63 feet long oak trees, standing on end. It is crowned by what they call The Lantern, which allows in light through tall, stained glass windows. Below the windows are wooden panels, painted with Victorian angels.
These panels open, allowing the church to be viewed from above, something I didn’t realise at the time, or I might have tackled the 165 steps to get up there.
Ely still retains its resident choristers, who sing most evenings and on Sundays and Feast Days. I can only imagine the sound of those voices echoing around that space.
Being Norman, the building is squarish, with no delicate-looking spires and, being made of stone, it could have felt cold and alienating. But the effect was the opposite; warm, comforting, even – and soo beautiful. I hung around until I was too hungry to hang around any longer.
I could have eaten at the cathedral cafe with the ducks but I chose The Kings Arms, as maybe giving me a chance of some vegetables. I’d eaten nothing but stuff smothered in mayonnaise and wrapped in bread for days (and the odd piece of carrot cake).
I ended up with shepherd’s pie; not exactly vegetables but a change from bread.
For a good look at the Octagon Tower, go to The Octagon, Lantern and Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral (Antiques Road Trips BBC), on YouTube.