We didn’t end up exploring Cambridgeshire as much as we wanted over the holidays. Instead we enjoyed being at home together and making short trips around the city itself and doing projects with the kids. Richard made bench seating for our table and now it’s up to Sydney and I to finish it (it needs some prettying up yet). He also bought some ink and went out for a walk with Sydney to get some reeds to make into calligraphy pens. Richard is a fun guy to have around. He will figure out how to make something out of nothing… nothing is what I see, something is what he sees. I would love to be creative, but that is not my strong suit. I am creative, as long as I have a guide–if you can call that creative! Sometimes it’s as though he knows how to do everything. So we now have reed pens, which turned out really nicely. Our only trouble now is that we don’t dare to take the ink out until after Judah is in bed. As a result, we have not used them very much. We hope to make a habit of sitting down after Judah and Norah are in bed and practicing with Sydney, who is very excited at the idea of playing with reed pens!
On New Year’s Day we looked at the weather and noticed that January 2nd was supposed to be beautiful. We had been thinking of taking a train over to Ely for a while and we needed to go out with the kids. By New Year’s everyone was getting more restless. (Wet cold days are not great for taking kids to the park, or even for walks. We did a few times, but you just don’t stay out for nearly as long.) And so we decided January 2 would be a perfect day to check out the Cathedral and walk around Ely. (It’s pronounced ee-lee. I have been corrected a number of times…).
Unlike many Cathedrals, Ely has an entrance fee, and special rooms sectioned off with extra tours you can take. There is the stained glass museum (within the Cathedral), and a tower tour. The tower tour sounds pretty attractive. Perhaps next time! Today we stuck with the regular ground floor tour, and meandered about until it started at noon. Although the girls did not think the tour particularly fun, they did enjoy collecting cards from stations around the Cathedral. At the entrance you can pick up a pamphlet which suggests all the information stations which highlight a special feature of the Cathedral. Kids are set the task of collecting a card from each station. So the girls enjoyed the treasure hunt for cards.
Ely Cathedral has an interesting history. It dates back to the 7th century, with a Lady named Etheldreda (or Audrey) whose father was the King of East Anglia. She was married off at a young age to a local Lord, but, as it happens, she remained a virgin. When her husband died three years later (in 655) she retired to Ely (her dowry), until she re-married five years later to the King of Northumbria for political reasons. This time she married under the condition that she be allowed to remain a virgin, as in her previous marriage. Being only 15 at the time, the king agreed. But 12 years later he regretted the arrangement. He tried in vain to pursue her and even bribed her. She was not persuaded. In the end she left him and became a nun. In 673 she restored an old church in Ely and there founded a double monastery where she served as the Abbess of Ely until her death. There’s an interesting story involving one of Ethedreda’s sisters–all of her sisters entered convents as nuns too. (Apparently in those days becoming a nun meant not only having freedom from marriage, but also meant being in a position of power when normally a woman had none.) One of them took over as Abbess of Ely after Ethedreda’s death, and had her body moved from the common grave she was buried in to the new church at Ely. When her grave was opened they found that her body had not decayed. So she became a major focus for medieval pilgrims. Today her tomb is showcased in the chancel at the one end of the Cathedral. Ethedreda’s monasteries thrived for a couple hundred years until destroyed by the Danes in the 10th century. In 970 it was refounded by a Benedictine community, but still somehow kept its links to royalty–the royals regularly visit even now.
Work on the Cathedral as we know it today, began in 1081. Having been built, added onto and restored many times over the last 1300 years, it flaunts several different styles of architecture, a major reason that architecture buffs and tourists make modern pilgrimages to the place. Romanesque and Norman architecture as well as English Gothic all coming together. History in every corner. It was built in a cruciform pattern with a central crossing tower and additional transept in the rear. Work on the nave was completed about 1140 and it is still one of the longest in Britain. It has a beautifully painted ceiling which traces the ancestry of Jesus, so that as you walk from the (rear) door to the altar you pass under the entire history of the world, from Adam to Mary. Then, as you pass the central altar, where Christ’s sacrifice brings new life, you walk into the chancel. Here are the tombs of the faithful, awaiting their future glory; and here sings the choir, a reminder of the heavenly choirs of Revelation. The story of redemption is built into the very structure of the place. The nave was completed by the end of the 12th century in the Norman style.
In 1322 the main tower fell, taking with it the choir (thankfully just the place not the people) and the Norman chancel. They decided not to follow the same plan, but instead to enlarge it to an octagon (uncommonly wide for the time) which was placed on top of a vaulted ceiling now called “The Lantern”. Since stone was too heavy for the structure, eight forty foot oak trees were brought in via the river and hauled up to the top of the vault. It is a huge feat and is stunning, letting beautiful sunlight fall into the centre of the cross through the stained glass windows encasing it (the tower tour takes you up there…). All this tracery, stone transforming into wood, just hangs in space above the transept.
Meanwhile, to find a place for all the pilgrims looking for the shrine of Ethedreda, they had built a large freestanding Lady Chapel. (They paused work on it to rebuild the main tower when it fell in 1322.) This chapel is still the largest of its kind, apparently. It is one of the most striking parts of the Cathedral, because it is filled with light, basically a large room surrounded by windows that reach high into the heavens. Originally, the windows were filled with images, and below them were rows of statues of biblical figures. Most of these decorations were destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the Reformation in the 16th century. Even the ones that remain have their faces bashed, eyes gouged, so that they’re only barely recognizable.
As the tour guide described, the Cathedral is basically a story of a building being built, rebuilt, and slowly restructured, over hundreds of years. Hence the many architectural styles. It is interesting to walk through and find signs of the old style leading into the new.
After the Cathedral we stopped into a little pub around the corner and had fish and chips! The fish was a tad over cooked, but it was about the experience too. We all had a great time chatting and eating pub food. There are a number of things to do in Ely, but we decided to only do a couple of things with the kids this time. The list of things to see next time includes Oliver Cromwell’s house–apparently it has automata. Next time! By this time the kids were getting tired of walking around (we are going to get them all scooters for next time!), so we made a quick tour of the little town, grabbed a coffee on the go and took the kids to a park on the way back to the train station.
It was a really fun day–and Ely is only a 15 minute train ride away. We’ll have to make more trips like this one. There is a lot to explore around here, if we just get out of the house and our pretty little city!
Playing at the park – end of the day