Ely in the morning – a fab day out.
At the beginning of September I was lucky enough to have a wonderful treat. I was given a really special weekend – as you may already know I had a fab time at Prom in the Park (see my previous blog), and on the other day I was taken to see Ely Cathedral in Cambridge. I was so excited. I had heard too much about it I wanted to see it for myself and on that lovely sunny Sunday we set off to visit the cathedral and the little city of Ely. Neither the little city nor the cathedral disappointed.
A little history about the Cathedral:
There has been a church on this site since AD 673, when St. Ethelreda founded her monastery,. She was a Saxon princess, the daughter of the King of East Anglia. She married twice, for political reasons, and eventually followed her wish to become a nun and she founded a mixed community for both sexes.
The Saxon Church was destroyed by the Danes in 870, restored in 970 as a Benedictine Monastery for men only, and then demolished to make way for the present church, built by the Normans between 1081 and 1189.
The Norman church was built with quite a substantial square central tower as well as the present West Tower, and the ground-plan was symmetrical and quite the thing at the time. It had two transepts (wings) one on each side of the western entrance.
The overall plan is a huge cross, the head towards the East and Jeruselem.
A porch was added in the 13th century at the west door and a major addition was built at the east end to house St. Ethelreda’s shine. Apparently crowds of pilgrims came to worship there.
On the Sunday we visited there was a large congregation worshipping and after they had finished their service there were quite a number of tourists looking around the church.
In the 14th century the central tower fell down in an earthquake and destabilized the whole building. It took them a while to sort out how to restore the area and what they achieved has become known as one of the ‘Wonders of the Medieval World’. We had a wonderful tour guide who explained all the ins and outs but suffice to say that Cambridge university ran several computer programmes for three months and could not come up with an explanation as to how the Octagon and Lantern were achieved such was the level of engineering expertise and talent at that time.
They replaced the central tower with what is known as The Octagon and Lantern which we toured later in the afternoon. This involved going up a set of spiral stairs leading to the roof, the passage getting narrower and narrower and the steps steeper and steeper as we climbed. I lost count of the number of stairs and had anyone been larger than we were they would never have made the climb as we also had to crawl through a narrow door which was not very high. We had a step up to it and an immediate step down on the other side. claustrophobics would never have made it and neither would those scared of heights. I am not too keen on heights but wasn’t going to miss this for anything.
We had to walk across the roof to get to the inside of the Octagon and Lantern which are made only of wood – 1,000 year old oak, at least 300 years old when felled. We looked down on the church below from these giddy heights as the sides of the Lantern opened up. From the ground these look like painted panels but in actual fact they each open and close; the paintings are amazing. Apparently the artists used to paint them were lowered over the sides of the Lantern with just a rope around their waists and they painted swinging back and forth.
The views from the roof were amazing, across the countryside, and when we got inside the Octagon and looked down on the church below it was a bit of a wobbly moment for me.
In the 15th century the West Tower was heightened with the addition of the Octagonal top, however, its extra weight caused problems and the North West Transept had to be taken down later. The Reformation saw the closure of the monastery and structural rescue work was needed on the North Transept, the extreme east end and the Lantern in the 18th century. In the 19th century the Victorians set about restoration and included the magnificent painted Nave ceiling.
We didn’t manage to visit it but there is a Stained Glass Museum. This window was in the roof above the Octagon.
There are over 100 panels on show with works by William Morris and John Piper apparently. Another time perhaps.
The oak trees were amazing to touch, they were huge and weighed tons and you had to wonder how they got them into place in the roof and how they don’t come crashing down.
On the wooden panels of the Octagon there are beautiful paintings and each panel opens so you can look down on the congregation. American bomber crews had scrawled their names and dates of their visits on these and there is also graffiti from earlier years. We were told not to bring pens and pencils into the roof space.
As I said it was very high in the top of the Octagon and everyone below looked tiny. We could see the flags hanging and also the windows up really close, as well as all the dove joints where the carpenters had fixed each tree to another. We could even see the marks of their tools.
View across the Octagon from the open panel where I was standing so I could take this shot and it shows one of the stained glass windows just below it.
The ceiling of the Nave is just amazing, I managed to take this shot from up in the Octagon. This is actually Victorian and the work of two artists; Henry Styleman le Strange who pained the first six panels (from the West end) and Thomas Gambier Parry who painted the last six.
The Lady Chapel is a large open and spacious light filled area. It is in honour of The Virgin Mary and were added to lots of churches in the 13th and 14th centuries. This one is unusual in that is it by far the largest attached to any British Cathedral, the foundations being laid in 1321, just before the collapse of the central tower though work continued in spite of the disaster. We were told the cathedral foundations are only about five feet deep. Building of The Lady Chapel was overseen by John of Wisbech and was completed in 1349. It was highly coloured and filled with the light from stained glass windows and highly coloured statues. All of which was destroyed in the 16th century by Henry V111 during the Reformation.
Can you spot the person looking out of one of the open panels opposite mine?
Anyway, I had better stop posting photos of the Cathedral before I run out of space.
Ely is a lovely little city, the smallest in Britain I think. We had a lovely breakfast at one of those early morning breakfast places where you can get a fry-up or a sandwich/baguette with whatever you want added. We walked a lot and had a good look round and enjoyed afternoon tea (no cakes) as we were being good in an old speciality tea rooms. They had over one hundred and fifty tea varieties to pick from and they could blend them to taste.
We just had to go into a small Real Ale and Cider room (cannot call it a bar as it was like a sitting room), with locally sourced and homemade cider and ale and the most gorgeous cheeses. The cider was rather strong!
I do hope you have enjoyed this brief tour around Ely Cathedral and photos of some of the houses locally. By the time we had done the Guided Tour into the roof and stopped off to sample the local Cider and Cheese it was late and a bit too gloomy for more photo taking. I hope I go back again soon as I loved it and I had the best day, with the best people and the best weather for it too.
All Photographs (c) Jane Risdon 2013 and All rights Reserved – enjoy.