Hyperlocal travel writing: Ely cathedral

cathedral in grey-yellow stone against a blue sky

It’s the first thing you see. Coming in by road or rail it’s the biggest thing on the horizon.

They call it the Ship of the Fens. It’s a big ship, a container ship or an oil tanker, with a long, flat profile except for the bulk of the west tower and the blob of the lantern; perhaps it’s even more like a steam locomotive missing the funnel.

But that’s only one side of it, or perhaps two: south and north. Come from the west, the way I do most days, you see the lopsided, broken west front, a stark diagonal line where the north-west tower ought to be. Cross the green and you meet an incongruous-but-somehow-not Crimean war cannon.

In the town, you look up, and there’s the octagon peering over the rooftops.

Walk out to the north-west, towards Little Downham, and look back, and the cathedral is more like the submarine of the Fens, emerging from the folds of ground in a geographical peculiarity I still don’t quite understand.

If you’re down by the river on a sunny day, you can look across the meadows and the railway line to see it hovering on the higher ground in a kind of fairy-tale lightness of glittering glass and flying buttresses that leaves Neuschwanstein in the shade.

It isn’t fussy: you can see it from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s and the station and the Fens and the top floor of Topping’s. The whole city huddles around it.

Inside, the light congregates at the crossing, flowing in from the nave and the choir and the north and south transepts, running up and down the octagon like the angels going up and down Jacob’s ladder.

I keep finding new angles to look from.

Cathedral seen across an expanse of water, with green bushes in the foreground
White van parked next a bench. The octagon of Ely cathedral is visible in the background.
A flat landscape of open fields with deep ditches. On the horizon there is a city with a prominent tower.

December Reflections 18: I said hello to…

Ely cathedral, seen from the south side, with the west tower partly hidden by a tree, but with a good view of the lantern across a green field

Ely cathedral. Not for the first time – I’d had my fingers nibbled by a duck on the cathedral green back in April 2014, and sneaked in after hours at the Christmas fair when I was doing my Cursillo weekend – but it’s different when you live in the city.

I’ve lived in a few cathedral cities in my time. None of their cathedrals has had quite the same imposing quality as Ely. I was born in Winchester, but we moved away when I was small and came back for bus running days, so in my mind the centre of the city is the statue of King Alfred on the Broadway. I went to university in Exeter: it was there that the ‘city on a hill‘ parable really started to have resonance for me, but in my mind the light streams out from the windows of the university chapel, not the cathedral. Guildford: yes, that’s a cathedral on a hill, but it’s rather remote from the city (not a city, but never mind). I used to sing at the church that served as the pro-cathedral before they built the new one; that’s on a hill, too, right in the middle of town, but surprisingly easy to miss.

But Ely is a small city, a city on a hill in the middle of flat, flat land, and the cathedral is the tallest building, and it’s very much in the middle of things. You can’t quite see it from everywhere, but you can see it from all sorts of places. A corner of the west tower and a corner of the lantern, from our bedroom window. The lopsided west front, as soon as you look up into town. Head out towards the river and look back over your shoulder, and it looks like a fairy tale castle across the water at Roswell Pits. Head out the other way, into the fens, and it joins the earth to the sky. Head up Downham Road and look back over your shoulder, and there it is rising from the swell of the ground. Not so much the Ship of the Fens as the Submarine of the Fens.

I’m still coming to understand what it means to live in this landscape that’s so flat and so much shaped by human intervention, where just the other side of the road the height markings on the Ordnance Survey map have minus signs in front of them. I know about cathedral cities. I know about agricultural landscapes, too. I know about living on the edges of things (the border between England and Wales; the south coast of the Isle of Wight), and I know about living in places that are vulnerable to the elements (bits frequently drop off the south coast of the Isle of Wight). But this particular combination, a cathedral on an island in a swamp that was drained for farmland, that’s something I’m still feeling my way into. It feels like all the places I’ve lived before, and it feels like none of them.

And the cathedral feels very much like the centre of things. This year I’ve been much more aware of the compass directions, being orientated, if you like. I’ve noticed the morning sun coming in at the front of the house and the evening sun lighting up my study. And I’ve returned to Slow Time and the monastic hours. Gratefulness.org restored the Angels of the Hours. The calendar was strange this year, but I marked the quarter days and the cross quarter days.

The cathedral, and particularly the octagon at its crossing, has felt like the centre of the compass. North, North East, East, South East, South, South West, West, North West. Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. Christmas and New Year, Candlemas, Lady Day and Easter, May Day, Midsummer and St John the Baptist, St James and my birthday and Lammas, Michaelmas, All Saints. I pack a lot into each of the eight sides; and they’re definitely sides, not points.

I don’t feel quite settled yet. This year, this unexpected nine months’ grounding, has made it easier to get to know this new city in some ways, but much more difficult in others. And after a lifetime of moving and an adulthood of renting it feels very odd to have finally bought a house in a place where we intend to stay for a long time. I haven’t quite got used to that, but I don’t think it matters. The sun’s going to keep on rising in the east, just beyond the far end of the cathedral.