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.
The name is a little misleading. Oh, it’s the road that takes you into the West Fen, but there’s as much north as there is west in the direction.
I take my life in my hands and cross the A10, and immediately drop down below sea level. This is a low, flat land. At this time of year it’s deep brown or bright green: vast breadths of ploughed soil, and young shoots. The sky above is an inverted bowl of cloud, pearly grey, dull.
It was a Dutchman who drained the marshes. Cornelius Vermuyden. The last time I walked down to the quay there was a paper picture of him in the window of the art gallery, armed with shovel and plans, and staring down Hereward the Wake across a broad drain. Hereward wouldn’t recognise the place. Vermuyden wins. For the moment. The Netherlands aren’t that far away, across the North Sea, but everything’s that far away, these days. In my head, Jacques Brel sings about the towers of Bruges and Ghent, mijn platte land, mijn Vlaanderland. Ahead of me, there’s Coveney church; behind me, the cathedral and St Mary’s.
The road surface is broken again and again by grooves in the tarmac. If I were on a bike, they’d be murder on the wrists; in a car, they’d induce motion sickness; on foot, I only notice them by eye. To my right is a ditch deeper than I am tall. Every now and again I have to hop up onto the verge to show willing when the cars pass. I don’t entirely trust it. On the other side of the road, an intermittent hedge provides some shelter from the wind. It’s hard to judge distance. Those white blobs: swans or sheep?
The tractors are big here. I remarked to a friend who grew up in Devon how big tractors have become; she thinks they were always big here. There’s room for them to be. The fields and roads of my childhood (the Marches, and then the Isle of Wight) wouldn’t fit these monsters.
I get a little closer to the white blobs. Swans. They’re too clean, their edges too well-defined, to be sheep. Big, though. Are the swans bigger here, too?
The road progresses in a series of right angles. Every now and again there’s a farm. Ebenezer (O, the deep, deep love of Jesus – but I can’t remember any more of the words than that, and wander off into Here is love vast as the ocean), Hale Fen Farm, the one that’s marked on the map as Frogs Abbey but which doesn’t have a name board. Tall willow trees, mud-spattered, and a mud-sodden teddy bear abandoned underneath them. I really cannot go rescuing muddy teddy bears from the side of the road, but I’m only just sufficiently hard-hearted to leave it.
It’s only a few days into Lent. I think about the wilderness. No barren land, this; its featurelessness is what makes it such hospitable farmland. Forty days and forty nights. My mind still switches from the harsh fifths of Aus der Tiefe to the gentle thirds and tones of Buckland at verse four, and it’s six years since I’ve been in a choir that had that trick. So shall we have peace divine…
There’s plenty of warning of the sharp steep hill into Coveney: you can see it from miles away, but it calls for some adjustment in pace, effort.Because I’m not on a bike today, I can saunter along the pavement and stop to read the information board. Coveney: Old English: village in the bay. Before all this was fields, the higher ground that Little Downham and Ely and Sutton sit on a ridge in the marsh, a horseshoe-shaped cove, with Coveney an island in the middle of it.
If I were on a bike, I’d go on, follow my nose, follow a drove until it petered out into a sharp-stoned path and I gave up for fear of a puncture, or until it met a main road. As it is, I sit on a bench to eat a couple of ginger biscuits and drink some water before turning back towards home. The daffodils are coming out. Down the hill again, and south-east, or, at least, what averages out to south-east, between all this right-angled corners. From this dead straight road through dead flat fields I suddenly see what the Old English meant. Ely crowns the ridge ahead of me, and there I am in the bay, down on the seabed. Little by little, walk by walk, I’m beginning to get my head around it, this platte land.
One of my great comforts this past year has been travel writing: reading it, and visiting in my imagination all the places that I can’t visit in the flesh. But it’s also made me appreciate where I am. And that made me remember that in fact I live in a city that’s a popular tourist spot in ordinary times.
Actually, I don’t believe that’s necessary. No matter where we live, we can approach our streets,gardens, kitchen tables, with a travel writer’s eye (and perhaps an attitude of self-parody, if need be). Take a look at this: Travel and Food Diary: Quarantine Edition.
So, if you’d like to jump in and share your hyperlocal travel writing, please do. (#HyperlocalTravelWriting ought to do it.) We can visit each othervirtually, travel the world, see the sights, taste the food, smell the scents, from our computers.
At the same time, it felt a bit like cheating to go straight in with the cathedral and Oliver Cromwell and all the rest of the attractions on my doorstep. They’ll come later, I’m sure. But I thought I’d start with something more ordinary: the path I walk most days.
Start at the north end. Immediately, there’s a choice. Left or right? Left, the path is narrower and the trees are closer. Right, the wider path is split down the middle: red for cycles, grey for pedestrians. They clasp between them a broad green space. There’s probably a dog or two bounding across it: a black labrador, maybe.
Left or right? It doesn’t matter. This wasn’t so much a fork as a spoon, and you started at the very tip of the bowl. If you didn’t dip down to the subway under the main road, drawn by the allure of a takeaway (not, in these times, a film or a swim) at the leisure park, or follow one of the little paths off to the left to find yourself somewhere at the end of a cul-de-sac, you’ll be where the bowl meets the handle. Now the two paths join, split the difference, become a sinuous strip of tarmac self-consciously meandering between the houses on the left and the trees on the right. The cycle track ends, but the cyclists continue: a lad on a paper round, sporty-looking people on mountain bikes, small children wobbling on stabilisers or whizzing off on balance bikes. Scooters, too. Dirt tracks, made by children or dogs, lead off into the trees and emerge again a little further on, for the pleasure of going nowhere in particular.
Beyond the trees, the A10 roars on. Somebody’s going somewhere, even if it isn’t you. South, towards Cambridge and London. North, towards the sea. The birds keep singing regardless. Thrushes, sparrows, pigeons. You might even hear a cockerel.
Now the path dips, loses a couple of metres in height. You notice it, out here in the Fens. The path broadens a little, becomes concrete, passes a small water processing plant, is barred by a gate (easy to walk round, and a particularly good blackberry spot in the autumn), meets the road. Not the main road, but the one that takes the traffic into the city from the north west. The cars (it mostly is cars) coming from the south whose drivers wish to do this veer into the middle lane, slow rapidly, and wait for the southbound lane to be clear. From the north, it’s easier. Meanwhile, the main flow of traffic – cars, white vans, grimy lorries, huge tractors in primary colours, hauling gleaming-bladed implements behind them – keeps on going.
Cross the road, and pause on the other side. Look up the hill. There’s the cathedral, effortlessly imposing. You’d have to climb a bit to get to it, more than you’d think from looking at it from here. You’ll have to climb anyway, following this path.
Again, the planted tree barrier has grown up on the right, recently enough that you can still see the plastic guards around the trunks, long enough ago that some of the trees have swelled enough to push them off. Hazel, silver birch, blackthorn, wild roses, brambles. Even in winter, the rosehips make the hedges bright. The houses are a little further away, but every so often a path branches off to take residents off into the maze that only they have really got their heads around.
Still it continues, an artificial path winding through artificial bumps and mounds, little bridges crossing little drains. Chunky plastic benches are provided at decent intervals. This is a path for people. Keep on climbing, and you come to a wide, open green. Look at the houses, spot which ones have been made to the same pattern as each other. Watch the dogs joyfully chasing balls. There might even be someone with a kite. Some new trees were planted this winter, filling in some more of the space between the path and the road: try to picture what it’ll look like when they’ve grown up. At the top end, there’s another little bridge, and then you’re back on this same climbing, tarmac path, tucked between the houses and the road, except now the road is quite a way beneath you.
At the top of the hill the path gives onto a square of houses with an impressive playground and a majestic horse chestnut tree, older than anything around it. Keep on past it.
If it’s been dry, or very cold, or if you’re not too worried about your shoes, you might as well leave the path and climb up to the top of the little mound which really is as high as you can get. Look down on the road, look west across the fen, look at the morning sky. Follow the hedge line or walk the ridge, sloping down southwards. Or you can keep on along the path, which has its own rewards: huge variegated ivy leaves; snowdrops and crocuses, or, later, cherry blossom; or later still, the orange balls of buddleia globosa, thick with bees; a bush full of opinionated sparrows; a copper beech hedge; a bright-beaked blackbird.
And then you’re at another road. Look left, and there’s the cathedral again; right, the roundabout to sort the Ely traffic from the northbound traffic from the southbound traffic from the westbound traffic and the traffic that wants the filling station or the Travelodge. And straight ahead, a tranquil field, ploughed or green, and another lone chestnut tree, its branches sweeping downwards, hazy in the morning light.
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.
This hasn’t been a year for huge decisions. The one that’s made the most enduring, most positive difference, was the commitment I made back in May, to go for a walk before breakfast every work day.
I haven’t managed every day: illness, bad weather, and the increasingly tardy sunrise have occasionally stopped it happening. But I’ve managed most days in the average week, and it’s made a difference.
Usually I take the same route: south along the footpath that runs behind our house, and back again. Sometimes I go all the way to the main road; sometimes, if time is short, I turn around part way. Occasionally I go up into town instead and explore the back streets. But mostly I’m walking the same path, out and back, every week day morning, home in time for a shower and breakfast and to join Morning Prayer over Google Meet.
I’ve walked through three seasons. I’ve walked through the silence of the first lockdown and the hum of rush hour. I’ve walked through rain and frost and sunshine, freezing fog and sultry heat. I’ve come to recognise the dogs and their walkers and the young couple with cropped trousers and reusable coffee cups.
Some more photos:
I’ve come to understand a little more about where I live now, have grounded myself in space and time by taking a very small journey through the one, moving through the other the only way I can. And I return a little more awake, a little less wound up about the state of the world.
As for last year’s decisions, which I was a bit vague about at the time, one was ‘which house to buy’, and has worked out very well so far. The other unmade itself, very decisively, in January. (There’s an argument for calling that this year’s biggest decision, but it didn’t feel like a decision at all from where I was.) They were both big, and took up a lot of my headspace, and it’s something of a relief that this year has only involved little ones.