A to Z of Cathedrals – E is for Ely in Cambridgeshire

When I was a boy my parents took us on caravan holidays.  I only had bad memories of caravan holidays and refused to ever consider them again until 2006 when my pal Dai Woosnam persuaded me to give modern caravanning a chance.  I did so and now I am happy to have a once a year holiday in a tin shed.

I had been to Kessingland in Suffolk before but we were taking my Mum and she liked it there so we happily selected it again.  I have only been to Suffolk twice before so have missed a lot and cannot claim to be an expert so when I planned the itinerary from Rugby (where my Mum lives)  through East Anglia I looked for new places to visit.

Historically East Anglia consists of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and maybe Huntigdonshire.  Essex occasionally aspires to be included but has never been admitted for not being posh enough.  On the positive side however it does have a First Class county Cricket Team and the others do not.

I most associate East Anglia with “Sale of The Century”, the quiz of the week with Nicholas Parsons.

We started at Ely in Cambridgeshire.

I have never spent much time in Cambridgeshire, I have only ever been to Cambridge once (not to the University) and missed it out again this time as we took the by-pass and headed deep  into the Fens.  After a few miles of flat, featureless landscape we spotted Ely Cathedral rising majestically from the fields and soaring into the heavens.

I used to believe that every County in England had just one Cathedral but now I know different because Cambridgeshire has two.  Yorkshire has five cathedrals, Lancashire has four and as well as Cambridgeshire, Kent and Hampshire also each have two.  Cambridgeshire has two because of the changing geographical status of Peterborough.  Peterborough used to be in Northamptonshire and then in Huntingdonshire but in 1974 was transferred to Cambridgeshire which gave the County two Cathedrals but left Northamptonshire with none.

Other English Counties without (Anglican) Cathedrals are Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, East Sussex, Isle of Wight, Rutland and Shropshire.

The Fens are drained and reclaimed now for agriculture but  a thousand years ago they were a soggy, waterlogged sort of place and as a boy I grew up on stories of Hereward The Wake who fought the Norman invaders and based his army on the Isle of Ely because only he knew the safe paths through the bogs and safe channels.

This is Hereward the Wake, a sort of eleventh century Brexiteer who would today have a seat in Boris Johnson’s anti Europe government or be writing a column in the Daily Express…

Ely is a small city because the land was previously unsuitable for development so at just twenty-five square miles it is the second  smallest in England after Wells in Somerset and just ahead of Ripon in Yorkshire and Truro in Cornwall.

The Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe is geographically the largest diocese of the Church of England covering nearly a fifth of the entire World including North Africa, Europe (but not the UK obviously because this is split between Canterbury and York), a bit of Asia (Turkey) and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Despite this immensity it has only one cathedral, the Diocesan Cathedral is the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar  and it is headed by the Bishop in Europe, Rob Innes.  Except for having to live in Gibraltar* that sounds like a rather good job to me.

We arrived in Ely and to my delight discovered that the City has free parking.  Free parking is something that is virtually unheard of in the UK.  The previous month I was in Yorkshire where every open  available space has a parking meter.  I am told that in Yorkshire you need a parking ticket when waiting at traffic lights.

Kim and Mum were not desperately keen to visit the Cathedral which was a good job because there is an entrance fee of £8.50 which is normally way above my budget so they slipped into the town to find a coffee shop and I searched the bottoms of my pockets in search loose change.  I still think £8.50 is a lot to pay but have to take into consideration that the annual maintenance budget for the Cathedral is £5m and has to be funded from visitor fees and public donations.

Once inside I had to agree that the admission fee was well worth it.  Not the biggest, tallest or oldest Cathedral but certainly on of England’s finest.  The Cathedral was begun in the seventh century but completed its first build under the Normans once they had dealt with the pesky Hereward The Wake.  It was built in stone quarried in Northamptonshire which is a bit ironic because they might have chosen to build there own but still don’t have one.

The stone was paid for not in gold or coin but in eels in a contract worth eight thousand eels a year.  (The name of the City is derived from eels).  A thousand years ago it seems people were rather partial to eels.  In 1135 King Henry I of England famously died after eating what the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon described as a dinner of carnes murenarum – the flesh of eels.

The king’s doctors had advised against him eating eels, but Henry took little notice and died later of food poisoning.  It turns out that eel blood is poisonous to humans if not cooked correctly.  Rather like the Japanese Puffer Fish and interestingly Japan consumes 70% of the World’s eel catch.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ely Cathedral and after an hour or so discovery returned to the streets to rejoin my travelling companions who had thoughtfully bought me a snack, thankfully not eels but a sausage roll.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

26 responses to “A to Z of Cathedrals – E is for Ely in Cambridgeshire

  1. You will not be surprised to learn that I’m not a fan of caravaning, I dislike small enclosed spaces. I can recall going on holiday in a caravan only the once, the holiday was cut short as my mother wasn’t a fan. I’m sure caravans are much improved but still……..

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  2. It is certainly magnificent. Thanks again.

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  3. Ely is a splendid cathedral, especially the lantern, both from inside and outside the building.

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  4. I love your take on Hereward the Wake. I don’t like him already.

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  5. Some fascinating history here – especially eel poisoning

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  6. Most informative, as ever, Andrew

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  7. I find them impressive, but I can’t help but think how much better off we would be if that money and effort had been spent on ameliorating the human condition (education, investment in better infrastructure, health, etc..) hundreds of years ago, instead of building these monuments to imaginary beings.

    But, god wants extravagant digs . . . or is it the clergy? One of those two, I guess.

    I see that on a smaller scale here in the US. I can drive through small towns that are obviously going through hard times . . . but they have four or more churches (sometimes some on the same street only a block from each other) and each is incongruous in their relative splendor to the surroundings. They are better built, with lots of upkeep that doesn’t go wanting . . . in contrast to the local schools.

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    • A thousand years ago or s o that is exactly what these people thought that they were doing I guess. These weren’t just churches these were big businesses that served the local community. Henry VIII needed their wealth so closed them down.

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    • Hmm . . . they could have done the same without bringing god into the mix, and I’m doubtful they spread equitably the benefit. I liken them to modern sport stadiums (at least here in the US) . . . they are monuments to the “home team” ostensibly to help bring business to the local community, but because of tax breaks and other deals, communities don’t reap back the money they invested in building them. They would have been better off using that money to help small businesses, promoting education and the arts, and providing affordable housing.

      Basically, stadiums are sold as a sense of pride; ‘look what we done built!’ and I suspect cathedrals were no different.

      I could be wrong, of course. There are conflicting theories as to their benefits (for cathedrals and sports stadiums), and I admit I erring toward the cynical side because I don’t see how those monuments benefit the ordinary person. Maybe I’m afflicted with a lack of vision.

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  8. Eels are delicious, Andrew, don’t knock it till you try it. I think you’d be amazed what a treat it is. Ely is a lovely little place, there’s quite a few of those round that area. It could be argued that East Anglia barges its way over the Bedfordshire border – I lived in Bedford for several years. Anglia TV, an affinity with Cambridge, the furthest upstream navigable point of the Great Ouse, and a lot of businesses with “Anglia” or “East Anglia” in the name…. in those times at least Bedford people definitely considered themselves the western part of East Anglia. But yes Ely is lovely…and you’re right, it’s 3-2.

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  9. Another one I have been to – though a long time ago and I don’t remember much about it. It looks very beautiful in your post.

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