I bought this unicorn in 2008. We were absolutely skint, so it came from a charity shop. We were absolutely skint, so the tree it hung from was in fact a ficus plant that someone had given us as a housewarming present. We were living in Guildford, which is not a great place to be skint. It is, however, a good place to find nice things in charity shops. This is because everybody else has plenty of disposable income, and can buy nice things, and then send their previous nice things to the charity shop. Things like unicorns. And, because of the wonky horn, it was a reasonable price, and I bought it along with some boring green baubles and some beaded icicles and some other things that I might share in the next couple of weeks. It must have been a bit heavy for the ficus. Even on sturdy firs and spruces it has to go quite far back towards the trunk.
Of all the things to be pedantic about (and I am pedantic about many things, though since it isn’t ually very edifying I try to keep most of them to myself) mythical beasts are probably one of the silliest. Unicorns do not actually exist, so it is really a bit pointless to complain that people always get the tails wrong. But they do. A unicorn isn’t just a horse with a horn on its forehead! It ought to have a beard, and a solid tail with a tuft. This one’s a proper unicorn. And I don’t care if its horn’s a bit wonky.
These three roundels (I don’t think I can really call them baubles when they’re flat) are part of a set that was a Christmas present from my aunt several years ago. This is the aunt who lives in Germany, near Frankfurt, and in 2007 I spent a couple of months living with her and her family while I was trying to work out what to do with my life.
I don’t remember any of the churches in and around Frankfurt looking much like the one in the middle there. That’s a style that I associate more with Bavaria and Austria. When I was out there I attended a charismatic church led by one of my aunt’s colleagues. It was a bit of an eye-opener after a a childhood in rural Anglicanism and three years at the university chapel. Somebody had a prophetic image for me. I’d never had one of those before, and I didn’t really know what to do about it, though in retrospect I don’t think they were far off.
One of the questions associated with moving to a new place is: where will I go to church? Pretty soon after I came back from Germany, I moved to Guildford. I was miserable for a lot of the time that I lived in Guildford, but the one thing I never regretted was ending up at Holy Trinity for the Advent Carol Service (I’d been aiming for the cathedral, but had drastically misjudged the time it would have taken to walk there). It was just the church I needed: it had an inclusive approach, intelligent preaching, a reassuring stability, and, in its excellent but non-auditioned choir, a way that I could contribute even when my confidence was absolutely shot and I was hanging on by a thread. We kept going there even after we moved to Woking and I was quite a bit saner.
Later, we moved to Cambridge – Chesterton, to be precise. I thought that St Andrew’s was our parish church. In fact, it wasn’t, but it was the church I needed. Not that I immediately realised this. We happened to land on a family service, which was not really our thing. A couple of months later, we hit a sung eucharist and found that there was indeed a choir that we could join. I went to family services quite a bit more when we were settled there, though. I ended up contributing more than I’d expected, too: by the time we moved on, I was a PCC member, leader of the twenties and thirties study group, and occasional reader and intercessor, as well as a choir member.
I mentioned last year that moving house in a pandemic had its advantages. One of those was the fact that church went online, so I could hang on at St Andrew’s for far longer than would have been feasible in other times. I even got involved in leading informal worship (I’d imagine all that’s still on Youtube) and was still doing that up until this summer. In theory, the great onlining could also have meant that I could get a taste of other churches via their Youtube channels, though in fact I didn’t do any particular church shopping that way. When the churches opened up again after the long 2020 closure I started going to Ely Cathedral. I’m still feeling like a complete newbie (pandemic time may have something to do with this) but I’m starting to get to know people and get involved in things.
I always do seem to end up at the church I need, even if it’s not immediately obvious why that’s the case. It’s almost as if someone has a better idea than I do…
As for working out what to do with my life: well, it all worked out, but not because of any particular effort or thought on my part, and it took rather longer than two months. I’m hoping to get back to Germany next year.
The St Nicholas decorations are great fun, very beautifully made, and rather expensive. Expensive, I think, because they’re beautifully made, but nevertheless outside what I think of as a sensible price for a Christmas tree ornament. I bought several of the Alice in Wonderland ones a couple of years ago, week by week, and had to write them into my budget.
However! I went into the cathedral shop several months ago, and there was an Etheldreda in the sale, so I bought her.
St Etheldreda was a princess of East Anglia and, after a vow of chastity, two marriages, and no children, founded the monastic house that became, several hundred years later, Ely Cathedral. Of course it’s difficult to pick one’s way between histories and hagiographies, and this is the period of English history where plenty of rulers ended up as saints. I’ve devoted very little time to research, but I get the impression that she was a formidable woman. All her sisters ended up as saints. I think they must have been quite formidable, too.
I’ve lived in a few cathedral cities in my time – Winchester, Exeter, Guildford (look, I’m not going to be picky), and now Ely. We left Winchester before I could read, and almost every time we’ve gone back it’s been to ride on buses. In Exeter, I lived most of my life on the university campus. Guildford’s only had a diocese since the twentieth century, and the cathedral is somewhat set apart, up on a hill.
In Ely, though, I get the sense of a city that exists because of its cathedral and because of its market. Ely is tiny as cities go: it can’t get much bigger because most of the land around it is below sea level. The big expansion has happened fifteen miles south, around Cambridge. In Ely I get the sense of a city that exists in very much the same way that it has for centuries. These days the cathedral brings in tourists as well as pilgrims and the market… well, the market attracts people wishing to buy stuff, some of which the medievals would have recognised and some of which they wouldn’t.
In some ways, Ely feels like everywhere I’ve ever lived, all at once: the rich light on old stone of Winchester and Exeter and Cambridge, the proximity to agriculture (tractors!) of the Welsh borders and the Isle of Wight, the excellent rail connections of Woking, the hills and the cobbles of Guildford. In others, it feels like nowhere else.
Etheldreda wouldn’t recognise the lush farmland and the complex system of drainage ditches that supports it. She’d be completely boggled by the railway, the fact that I can get to London in little more than an hour. She’d be bewildered by my bicycle, come to that. But there’s not much you can do to that big wide sky. Contrails aside, she’d recognise that.
One last thing: it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that St Etheldreda was also, later, known as St Audrey. St Audrey as in St Audrey’s Fair. St Audrey as in tawdry. The absolute blinginess that the designers have endowed her with her is really rather fitting.