Wednesday, 11 December 2019
An Afternoon With Etheldreda
In Cambridgeshire there are several landmarks you always scan the horizon for on a clear day: Rivey Hill water tower, the chimneys of Addenbrookes Hospital, the radio telescopes at Lords Bridge, Barrington cement works and Ely Cathedral. The Cathedral has them all beat in terms of both age and beauty.
One of the best views of it is to be had as you pass by on the train - the boats on the Ouse, the riverside pubs, the rooftops of the shops and houses and above all the soaring Cathedral. As you walk from the station you can enjoy the view at the top of the page and then just a few more steps bring you right beneath the west tower.
There's been some sort of Christian foundation on the site since the Saxon Queen Etheldreda founded a double monastery (one for monks, one for nuns) here in 673 AD. I'd always understood that these early Christians were seeking a quiet refuge in a wild and inaccessible location. Archaeology has recently shown this is not quite true: the Fens had been a thriving and prosperous place since at least the Bronze Age.
As soon as you've negotiated the ticket desk you find yourself in a nave which is very long,
very high, very narrow and quite mesmerising. It's also very old, these stones having been shaped and laid one on top of the other around the year 1100 AD. A surprisingly large part of the building dates from that period.
The magnificent presbytery was completed in the Thirteenth Century and houses the shrine to St Etheldreda.
The builders probably thought their work was finished. However in 1322 disaster struck when the Norman crossing-tower collapsed.
That seeming catastrophe was turned to advantage by the Sacrist of the monastery, Alan de Walsingham, who created the glorious Octagon instead of the tower. It's made, not of stone, but of good English timber - there's over two hundred tons oak up there! The main supports are 63 feet (19 metres) long and weigh in at 17 tons each.
The wonderful golden light that seems to permeate the Cathedral is partly the natural colour of the stone, but it's also enhanced by the low late-afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass.
The Lady Chapel, which is on the north side and therefore not receiving the same light, is always bright and cool. It was not always like this as it formerly had coloured glass and painted stonework. It's the biggest Lady Chapel in any of England's cathedrals.
Elsewhere there's plenty of stained glass, shown off to perfection by the bright sunlight. The cathedral also houses the only stained glass museum in the country - one day I'll plan my day well enough to visit the museum and climb the tower too!
I'd better not leave without showing you the massive Christmas tree - I wonder what the twelfth century monks would have made of that.
Once outside it soon began to get dark and the moon started to slowly climb into the sky while the tower assumed a pinkish tint from last glow in the western sky.
I made my way back to the railway station and bade a farewell to Etheldreda of Ely, though I still have a lot of photos that I took of little details which may well form a future post.