Cambridge, England – June 2001

You would think I would be happy: the sun is shining, my footy team have just won a historic treble, I have a beautiful loving girlfriend whose favourite pastime is ironing and I have just convinced my boss that he should pay for me to go off on a fact finding mission of Brasil (sucker). But still I am not happy.

The only reason I can see for this is that living in Cambridge is really not my cup of tea and that being surrounded by gormless looking Japanese language students ‘..where is punting?’ is quite possibly the root of all evil and driving me to drink. In desperation I turned to divine help this month and drove over to Ely to check out the famed cathedral and see if that lightened my mood.

City of Ely Crest
Ely, pronounced E-lee, is the second smallest city in the UK (I have no idea what the first is, so please don’t ask me) and a short drive from Cambridge. Ely Cathedral is situated in the small city of Ely, population 10,400 and is 14 miles north east of Cambridge on the river Ouse. One story has it that the town takes its name from the eels which were the staple diet of the islanders in Saxon times. Another, which is far more believable, says that St Dunstan turned the local monks into eels as a punishment for their sexual misdemeanours.

The story of Ely Cathedral begins in Saxon Times with the life of its founder, St. Etheldreda. Etheldreda, a Saxon princess, was born in AD630 at Exning near Newmarket. Etheldreda knew that God had called her to the religious life but for political reasons she was forced to marry twice. Keeping her vocation in mind, she maintained her virginity, which was highly prized in early Christian times (unlike in modern day Cambridge) and presumably annoyed her husbands somewhat.

Eventually her second husband released her from her marriage vows and she fled to the Isle of Ely where, in 673, she founded a double monastery for monks and nuns on the site of the present Cathedral where she was installed as the first Abbess. History doesn’t record the fate of her husband but I suspect he retired to the fens with some sheep and lived out the remainder of his life in woolly heaven.

Etheldreda died on 23 June 679 of a throat tumour and was buried in the grounds of her monastery. On 17 October 695 her tomb was opened and her body was moved into the Saxon church. The historian Bede tells us that her body was found to be well preserved with the tumour healed and because of this medical mystery her shrine was the focus for vast numbers of medieval pilgrims. The Shrine was destroyed during the Reformation but a slate in the Cathedral marks the spot where it stood, and June 23 and October 17 are still kept as major festivals in the Cathedral.

Etheldreda’s monastery flourished for 200 years until it was destroyed by the Danes – bit of a mystery this to me, and if past experiences of my own work with the Danes is anything to go by, them as well. In 1081, work on the present building was begun, under the guidance of Abbott Simeon. It was completed in 1118 and the Cathedral now stands as a remarkable example of Romanesque architecture. The most outstanding feature of the Cathedral is the Octagon, built to replace the Norman tower which collapsed in 1322. In my humble opinion it puts almost every other church in Europe to shame. And that includes Reims. I was less pleased when I found out that the master mason responsible for the cathedral was probably French, but then again you can’t have everything.

Stained glass

Stained glass in the Cathedral

The monastery at Ely was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 and although Ely suffered less than many other monasteries, some statues and stained glass were still destroyed together. St Etheldreda’s Shrine was also destroyed.

The first major restoration took place in the 18th Century under James Essex. With the arrival of Dean George Peacock in 1839 a second restoration project began. Together with the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, he restored the building to its former glory. A third major restoration project, the most extensive to date, was begun in 1986 and was to be completed by the year 2000.

The 14th Century Lady Chapel with its intricate stone carvings is the largest in England. The Prior’s Door, the painted Nave ceiling, Bishop West’s Chantry Chapel and St Ovin’s cross – the only piece of stonework of Saxon origin in the Cathedral – are all worth a look.

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral

My initial impression of the cathedral, which dominates the flat Cambridgeshire landscape was, “Wow!. This is far too good for a small backwater town.” Its soaring walls and vaguely gothic pretensions hint back to a time when Britain was great and we knew a thing or two about great engineering projects (Or at least we knew who to pay who did actually know a thing or two about engineering). It really is a staggeringly beautiful building, despite the fact that it’s under constant attack by tour parties.

My one major complaint about the cathedral is the astronomical entrance fees. To enter the cathedral costs £4 (it’s meant to be a voluntary donation but the vicious wardens enforce it with a big stick), £3.50 to see the stain glass museum, a Pound to see the latest exhibition and another two Pounds for the illustrated guidebook. If my math hasn’t deserted me that’s a staggering £11.50 which, I am sure most readers will agree with me, is bloody outrageous.

In all fairness, the cathedral does require a significant amount of money to keep it in good nick, especially with the continual pounding of the massed tourist armies tramping over the hallowed floors daily, and therefore all donations are gratefully received.

Opening Times

All year, daily: Summer 7:00am-7:00pm; Winter 7:30am-6:00pm (Sundays 5:00pm)

Principal Services

Sunday: 10:30am Choral Eucharist; 3:45pm Evensong.

Weekdays: (except Wednesday) Evensong is sung at 5:30pm

Access to the Cathedral is limited during service times and on some special weekdays.

Getting There

Ely Cathedral

Ely Cathedral

15 miles north of Cambridge on the A10. Coach parties may alight near the West Door – coach park nearby. Several large free car parks in Ely – generally full.

Well, that about wraps up another fun packed, monthly Cambridge update. I am off on my travels again in a few days but will be back next month with more ramblings from my world jaunt, opps, I mean working trip. Have a good month, wherever you are in the world, especially if it’s on the road less travelled.