Ely cathedral is really what gave me the idea for going to see every cathedral in England, I guess that and also the fact that I could go to it in the same day as Peterborough cathedral, when I saw it from the train passing through Ely train station when I was travelling from Norwich to Manchester when my band were on tour. It’s amazing how it does sort of rise up from the dead-flat landscape of the Fens, but I guess that’s what you get when you’re a really big building at the top of a hill. Its nickname is ‘The Ship Of The Fens’- a sad reminder that the Fens used to be a lot better than just flat, as they were previously half-full of water.
Ely is a really magnificent building but unlike Peterborough, its not so immediately obvious why. But just check out that great late 12th century west tower with the clock in it- yes, excitement of excitements, Ely is a cathedral with a clock in its tower! I ate a peanut butter sandwich in the rain in the grounds outside, across from a cannon.
Inside (you have to pay to get in- I recommend getting combined entry for both the cathedral and the adjacent stained glass museum- you can also get tours of the tower and the Octagon thrown in as a different deal if they’re doing them that day), the main “omg wow” feature is- mentioned in the brackets- the Octagon, which is just like this amazing lantern thing in the ceiling of the central tower, with these wondrously coloured pictures of angels (or maybe saints or something I dunno, but I think they’re angels at least), and in the centre Christ looming out all 3D-like (I didn’t want to ask whether or not it actually was 3D, for fear of looking stupid).
Another interesting feature about Ely is how, for a cathedral, it has this strange ‘religious’ vibe to it, which I know probably sounds like a dumb thing to say, because obviously cathedrals are religious buildings, but culturally I think they’ve by-and-large become secularised, or at least the religion in them is never in-your-face, unless you’ve stumbled into a service by mistake, but in Ely the religiousness is almost, like, evangelical and stuff. So the brochure has the slogan: “striving to be a Christian community of worship, welcome and care.” And they make you stop every hour for prayers to remind you its a house of worship. And when talking about the acoustics the tour guide (there are regular tours throughout the day inclusive in the price) was all like: “sometimes if there are children we get them to shout out ‘hossanah’ or ‘hallelugah’ or something to test the acoustics,” which is, you know. Kind of weird.
Oh and throughout the cathedral there are these little cards you can pick up with photos of bits of the cathedral on them, and then on the back they have a description, but then- get this- they have like a Bible quote, and a website to go to to learn more about the Christian faith. However on the plus side the cards are really cool, look:
(the best one is the one of 3D Jesus in the Octagon, only that’s on my wall in Manchester)
Nowadays, no cathedral is complete without a few conspicuous modern sculptures, and you can see two of them from those cards. The winding one with the cross at the end is called ‘The Way Of Life’ and is on one of the walls of the West Tower and is some sort of Christian allegory. The other, cooler one is a sculpture by this guy David Wynne of Mary Magdalene encountering the risen Jesus and is in the South Transept. Radical.
Another sculpture by David Wynne forms the centrepiece on the refurbished Lady Chapel, complete with recently-built walkway connecting it to the main body of the cathedral. However, it is absolutely hideous. It is ostensibly of the Virgin Mary as a “powerful, attractive” woman (not a passive image of her), which is fine, only the colour and stuff make it look really tacky. The Lady Chapel is pretty cool though, the best part being the decorations round the side which have all had their faces chiselled off (something to do with the dissolution of the monasteries). Apparently the Lady chapel used to be much more separate and functioned as the Parish church. The glass round the sides is mostly empty of stain, which always gives church buildings an odd feel- however there are little logos in some of them announcing the sponsors of its refurbishment- Barclays, TSB, and so forth.
From the cathedral brochure’s description of the statue of Mary in the Lady chapel: “The words on the base are from St Luke’s gospel: Behold the handmaid of the Lord. You may wish to ask yourself what God is calling you to do?” Idk, I think God is calling me to visit loads of cathedrals maybe?
Ely was originally founded (as a monastery) in 673 by Queen Etheldreda (now St.) who was a Saxon princess, married twice to a couple of princes, but she wished to be a nun and had made a vow of perpetual virginity, so neither of her marriages were consummated, which eventually caused her second husband to try and forcibly capture her and force her to have sex with him, but his plan failed. Her shrine is in front of the High Altar, and she kind of permeates the whole cathedral. Ely became a cathedral in 1109. Nearby to Etheldreda’s shrine is the chapel to Bishop Alcock, bishop of Ely between 1486 and 1500, and nowadays perhaps best known as an ancestor to trendy rock trend-setter Christopher Alcxxk of Internet Forever.
Ely the town, unlike Peterborough, a really great place to visit in and of itself. It’s a bit like a version of Alresford- the small, watercress-producing town where my parents’ house is- only good, in that it has a cathedral, the river is way better, the surrounding landscape more interesting, it has this really cool antiques centre called the Wharfside Antiques Centre which is mostly quite reasonably priced and had a LOT of great old cathedral postcards- again, on my wall in Manchester- which I bought up, and even an ‘Ely Stamp Shop’, but that one didn’t seem to be open. The ducks are also FUCKED UP. What’s with this? When I first saw it I thought: “fuck, a duck’s mated with a chicken and produced offspring, why doesn’t science know yet?” but this was in the centre of town… then I went to the river and ALL OF THEM WERE LIKE THAT. What is going on? Ely’s ducks: the great new cryptozoological mystery of our time.
I have never had eel, but I want to now. Apparently Ely is so associated with eels, taxes there used to be payable in eels. How’s that for trivia? If I was back in Ely, I’d go to the tourist centre earlier to get a riverside walk pack.
Fun tip: half-priced Ely cathedral Christmas cards can currently be purchased in the gift shop.
Hot fact: The word ‘tawdry’ originates in Ely due to cheap lace souvenirs related to ‘St Audrey’ (an alt.name for Etheldreda) being sold to sucker tourists at the annual fair there!