Monday, October 7, 2013

The Ship of the Fens

Another Cathedral to check off the list, my third in a week. (The first being St. Paul's and the second being Lincoln's.) Today I ventured up from Cambridge to Ely to see the town and the Cathedral.

Ely's Cathedral can be seen for miles before you reach England's second smallest city (Fun fact! Wells is England's smallest city.) The cathedral is known as "the ship of the Fens" because Ely used to be an island surrounded by freshwater marshes, which are Fens. Ely is named as such because of the eels that were found in the marshes and thus the land became known as Eel Isle, which then became Ely.

The cathedral's history dates back to the 7th century when the original cathedral was built by a monastic community. Pilgrims came to Ely for centuries to visit the shrine of Saint Etheldreda (referred to locally as Audrey), who was the daughter of the king of East Anglia and died in 680.

Like most cathedrals, Ely is a conglomeration of many centuries of architectural styles. After the Normans invaded Ely, which took them five years to finally do, they enhanced the current building. The 11th century Norman nave's series of columns leads to the Gothic-styled Octagon Tower, which supports a distinctive wooden roof. The original tower crashed in the 14th century due to instability in the foundation. The Octagon was built from 1320 to 1340 by William Hurley, who later became Master Carpenter to the King at Westminster. I went on a tour to the top of the Octagon and saw for myself the many massively large oak trees that are used to support the lantern atop the tower. At the time the oak trees were cut down in the middle of the 14th century, they would have already been many hundreds of years old. This wood then is well over a thousand year's old.

The Octagon incorporates medieval carvings that tell the story of Etheldreda. Unfortunately, Saint Etheldreda's shrine and many of the Cathedral's statues were destroyed in the Reformation. Most of the stained glass windows were created and installed in the Victorian period of the late 19th-century as was a painted wooden ceiling.

Ely also has a historic connection to Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth after the English Civil Wars ended in 1651. Cromwell lived in Ely for 10 years from 1636 to 1646 when he inherited the property and the position as the local tax collector from his uncle. The house still stands and is a museum of Cromwell and 17th-century domestic life.

To end my pilgrimage to Ely and to sample a bit of English domesticity, I ended my day with a true English tea - an egg and watercress sandwich, scones with jam and cream, and a pot of tea. One thing I've enjoyed most this week is the copious amounts of tea I've had - at least three small pots a day. How will I incorporate my afternoon treat of tea and cake into my normal life?

Photos from the day can be found here.

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