August 31, 2016: When I walked through the south door of Ely Cathedral, and looked up, I was completely blown away. I was facing the crossing, where the nave, running west to east, meets the north and south transepts. Completely normal, but the octagonal lantern crowning the crossing was not at all normal. It was a marvel of stone, wood, stained glass and paint that really needs to be seen to be appreciated, although I did take some photographs. If I had entered at the west end, which is apparently the normal route, I might not have been quite as amazed, but coming in from the south the Octagon was the first thing I saw. And although the rest of the cathedral was certainly worth visiting, I kept coming back to the crossing.
The main building was lofty and long, and there was an additional, huge, lady chapel. The volunteer who took me round told me that it had been founded in 763 as a dual male and female monastery, and there was still a shrine to the female founder, Etheldreda, a Saxon princess. The current building was begun in the late eleventh century when it served a Benedictine monastery, although the Octagon was built in 1322 after the central Norman tower collapsed. Besides the Octagon the choir stalls were certainly worth a look, and the organ, in a case above the stalls, boasted gaily painted pipes. The cathedral even had a small labyrinth built into the floor, possibly Victorian, with very tight corners and not much respect from visitors.
Since Ely is so close to Cambridge – 16 miles, 15 minutes or so by train – and Cambridge is so close to Letchworth – 25 miles, half an hour by train – where I grew up, I am not sure why I had never been there before. True, it is one of the smaller cathedral cities (although St. David’s, in Wales, remains the smallest). But it is a perfectly fine place for a day trip, with the cathedral soaring majestically over the flat fens, a house once occupied by Oliver Cromwell during the first stage of his rise from obscurity to ultimate power, and a rather nice canal.
I skipped the cathedral’s stained glass museum, but I did visit the Cromwell house, of especial interest since I had just enjoyed the Civil War reenactment in Newport Pagnell. The tour ended with a request for visitors to vote on whether they now thought him a hero or a villain. During the tour, informational texts had reported on his reasons for rebellion, concentrating on Charles I’s attempts to change church policy in a more Catholic direction, and trying to debunk the persistent tale that he had been responsible for banning Christmas celebrations. (Having just encountered the first Christmas tree of the 2016 season – in mid October! in Kyoto Station! I must confess to some sympathy for the ban, whoever was responsible.) In the end I voted for hero, although he has never been a favorite of mine.