Ely, known by many as 'The Ship of The Fens', and if you have had the joy of seeing it surrounded by Autumn mists you will clearly understand why, is just a short journey away. As over two hundred and fifty thousand visitors go there each year you can be sure there is something worthwhile to see.
It is not possible to cover much about the cathedral here so I have chosen a few aspects that fascinated me during my visits. Firstly, why is there such a huge cathedral surrounded by such a small population?
The Cathedral was founded as a monastery in 673 by St. Etheldreda, a Saxon Princess from East Anglia. Destroyed by the Danes in 870, the monastery was re-founded as a Benedictine community in 970 but the major building work was carried out after 1081 by Simeon, a former monk of St. Ouen and Prior of Winchester. He was of the "Conqueror's blood". Under his stewardship the wealth of the Monastery grew enormously. The building was a statement and was built 'to the glory of God for whom only the best will do." There is a whole separate story here that would fill a novel or two about naughty monks stealing treasure and absconding - perhaps another day.
The story of St. Etheldreda has elements that are still with us today. Etheldreda died around 680 from a tumour on the neck, reputedly as a divine punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces in her younger days; in reality it was the result of the plague which also killed several of her nuns, many of whom were her sisters or nieces. At St Audrey's Fair necklaces of silk and lace were sold, often of very inferior quality, hence the derivation of the word 'tawdry' from St Audrey.
17 years after her death her body was found to be incorrupt. The tumour on her neck, cut by her doctor, was found to be healed. The linen cloths in which her body was wrapped were as fresh as the day she had been buried.
The Octagon Tower, known as The Lantern, is a wonder of the mediaeval world and globally recognised as a masterpiece of engineering. The masterful coloured panels were designed by George Gilbert Scott, the gothic revivalist of Midland Hotel at St Pancras and the Albert Memorial fame. Not so well known for the fact that he designed many workhouses and lunatic asylums. The Lantern is an amazing structure the like of which you would only find in a building so well funded at the time of construction.
'The Way of Life'
On the North West Transept wall there is a magnificent sculpture called 'The Way of Life' by Jonathan Clarke. Like the journey of faith, its path is irregular and unpredictable; and just as the journey is sometimes hard, sometimes joyful, the surface texture and colour also vary. It was worked on in collaboration with Theology Through The Arts of the Divinity Faculty, Cambridge University. The aim was to produce a piece of contemporary art of high quality and general accessibility to be placed in Ely Cathedral whilst at the same time pioneering a new, collaborative model for the commissioning of art for cathedrals, which tackles their theological and social dimensions. The Way of Life was dedicated by the Bishop of Ely on the 15th March 2001.
For me, this touches on an essential issue, the centrality of art and its importance to daily human life. Where better to display that art than in the centre of the community? And there is a another essential issue in this work which is why the photograph is included. If you look you will see the numbers 1, 2 and 3. The Trinity. The symbolic power and significance of numbers is well known and features in much of religious art and architecture but that is a separate story that would fill another novel - as Dan Brown well knows.
The Stained Glass Museum
Viewing a cathedral offers experiences that stimulate and challenge us in so many ways and one of those is stained glass. There is not space to elabourate but Ely contains The Stained Glass Museum - worth a visit in its own right.
The cathedral hosts a whole series of concerts and lectures as well and the scones in Refectory Café and The Almonry Restaurant are memorable.
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