Tuesday, 7 December 2010

A Jaunt to Ely

It was a pleasant summer's morn
The day all to enjoy
When I awoke and I looked out
My full time to employ

One bright Saturday in September we journeyed to the nearby city of Ely, best known for its Cathedral (and shrine of St Etheldreda). We had tickets for an acoustic concert by the Mediæval Bæbes in the Lady Chapel at the cathedral and thought it a good excuse to spend the day exploring a new town.

Ely Cathedral
I am continuously surprised by how easy it is to get to places in England. Our train fare was only £4 return and the ride took a mere 15 minutes! Ely is nicer than Cambridge for having its train station in a convenient location, so it did not take us long to walk to town and we spent some time browsing in antique shops on the way. Our first planned stop was the local market. Although it was not nearly as large as the Cambridge market we enjoyed browsing the stalls and I picked up a lovely embroidered cloth for our coffee table.

Next stop was a bookstore for David. We love living in a land where bookstores have not been run out by Chapters-Indigo because it means we can actually browse in different stores and not be met with the same books every time. This store, Topping, was particularly incredible—three floors of books with a good selection of everything. They had an astounding number of signed first edition hardcovers, all being sold for cover price. Needless to say my bibliophile husband bought two bags worth of books by some of Britain's most acclaimed authors.

David's plunder
 It was then time for lunch and as the day was fine we were able to have a picnic in the parkland adjacent to the cathedral. We perched under a horse chestnut tree and munched on cold chicken, bread, and tomatoes with Ely Cathedral and a spotty black & white horse allowing us to pretend we were medieval peasants on an illicit holiday picnic on Cathedral grounds.

After lunch we made our way to Oliver Cromwell's house, where we went on a tour of Cromwellian things and listened to a rather biased program which urged us to determine if he was a hero or villain. I am rather pre-disposed for hating Cromwells (both Oliver & Thomas) and although I enjoyed the tour (and came away with puritan recipes) I could not bend on my views and thus cast my vote for "villain" as we left. My husband followed my lead, although he claims this is only because I would have hit him if he'd voted his own way. The tour did serve its purpose, I suppose, in that I no longer hold Cromwell personally responsible for cancelling Christmas, but it could not quite redeem him.

Following Cromwell's house we went to see Ely Cathedral. We had hoped to go up one of the towers but they were closed. The cathedral contains a mix of the ages, from Anglo Saxon to Modern, all styles living in amongst the others. Thus, from examining the carving on a 12th Century door one may move to see an Anglo Saxon stone marker, next to which is a memorial for those who died in WWII. There is beautiful stained glass throughout the cathedral and paintings up as high as the eye can see. Tombs cover the floor and line the aisles. Standing at the high altar, looking back towards the nave, the ceiling erupts with the beauty of painted panels and the muted light of stained glass. In that spot one sees the glory of the cathedral unfolding as it was meant to, a suitable dwelling for the transubstantiated body of Christ and his bishop.

A visit to a religious site always gets me thinking about sacred space, etc, and in a cathedral where tramping tourists disturb the gloomy hush, modern chairs seem out of place, and the vending machines are just plain wrong, it was beautiful to see these little chapels, place for quiet adoration and worship, tucked away and waiting for the pilgrim. Behind the high altar is the chapel of St Etheldreda and it gave me a certain thrill to pray and light a candle at her shrine, when scarcely more than a year before I had first encountered her in a mediaeval vita.

One of my favourite chapels in the cathedral was the lady chapel, a room which bears the scars and disfigurement of the Reformation. In this room full of destroyed imagery a powerful statue of the Virgin rises in a modern sculpture. This is no Mary meek and mild, but a woman full of joy and power. Once you adjust to the change from the restored Cathedral to this ravaged chapel you can begin to understand the power and beauty of the Virgin's cult and the old ways. Even with the attempts made to destroy the chapel it still remains, and this way of knowing God has not been erased. Perhaps foolish, I nonetheless see faith and hope in the remains of this chapel, and take renewed strength from the knowledge that although men strive to destroy they cannot get at the spirit, which remains and returns long after the destroyers have turned to dust.

After a quick tour of the Cathedral Shop (procuring some certified Ely Cathedral jam) we went for a pint and then tried to find a place for dinner. We ended up in the dining room of Lambs Hotel and were treated to one of the best tasting meals we've had in England. My chicken wellington on creamed leeks was particularly superb, and David really enjoyed his introduction to balsamic-glazed garlic bread. It also felt lovely and very touristy to be dining in a hotel dining room (Coast Hospitality Inn aside!).

Full of our excellent meal, we returned to Ely Cathedral and the Lady Chapel for the Mediæval Bæbes concert. Although we enjoy their music we have never heard them in person before and were not disappointed. First off, it is incredible to be able to hear a concert of medieval music in a space that was designed for proper acoustics. Second, the bit of life & drama they brought to the performance was incredibly engaging, so much so that I found myself gaining an appreciation of songs that I did not really like on their albums. After the concert they gave autographs, so I bought a copy of their latest cd and got it signed by the group. Then it was time for a lovely walk through the hushed streets to the train station, and a quick ride back to Cambridge.

To sum—Ely, strongly recommended.



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