THE ISLE OF ELY

EASTER MONDAY, 2016

Molly and I drove over to Ely to see my cousin William and friend Bill. It was a windy day, and the rain was pelting down in sheets when we left. We turned off the A 47 just beyond Swaffham and drove down the A 1122 to Downham Market. It took us an hour and twenty minutes to reach Ely, and by the time we arrived the rain had stopped. The afternoon was bright, but the wind was cold; this was storm Katie. The City of Ely is less than eight miles from Norfolk at its nearest point, so it isn’t far; it just goes to show what a big county Norfolk is!

Although it has never been part of Norfolk, it had been a part of the East Anglian kingdom since at least the seventh century. For over 700 years until 1837 the Bishops of Ely had temporal power over the Isle of Ely – i.e. he excercised secular as well as ecclesiastical power. This ‘island of eels’ had been a genuine island in the watery Fens until drainage was effected in the 17th century. The Isle of Ely was still a separate county when I first went there, and remained so until 1965. It was one of the smallest counties in the land, if not the smallest, and one of the smallest cities too; St David’s in Wales is the smallest cathedral city in the UK, with under 2,000 inhabitants. Ely has a population of over 15,000.

The cathedral in Ely was founded in 1107, but the famous Abbey for both monks and nuns had been built by St Ætheldreda in the 7th century. She was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, who has already been mentioned in my blog about Blythbugh. Ætheldreda was first of a succession of royal Abbesses who ruled the Anglo-Saxon monks and nuns of Ely. This was not gender equality – it favoured the female line over the male. This was because the females, as royal offspring, were of the highest social status. With the coming of the Norman kings double monasteries died out in England, so the tradition of the female ruling both sexes disappeared too. Two hundred years after Ætheldreda founded the monastery it was destroyed by the Vikings, who also killed King Edmund of East Anglia. St Edmund is remembered in Ely Cathedral by a chapel, and there is a carving of the wolf holding his head in the east of the north aisle.

The West Window of the Lady Chapel, Ely.

The West Window of the Lady Chapel, Ely.

The two architectural gems of Ely Cathedral are the lantern and the Lady Chapel. Both were done in the fourteenth century. The lantern was constructed of wooden vaulting when the stone tower fell down. The octagonal structure provides a beacon of light at the crossing of the nave and transepts, which is especially impressive from inside. The Lady Chapel was begun the year before the tower fell down, and undoubtedly the work disturbed the foundations. Cracks were already appearing in the walls, and the peaty Fenland soil was not a very firm basis for the heavy Norman tower. The lighter lantern has produced far less pressure on the foundations, and although the oak beams weigh 200 tons, this is much less than a stone tower. It was a brilliant design, said to have originated with the Sacristan.

The Cathedral is built of Barnack stone, a high quality building limestone, that was quarried near Peterborough. It was first used by the Romans and continued in use throughout the middle ages. The blocks only had to be dragged a short distance on sledges down to the river Welland. The boats then sailed down the river Nene to the Wash and round to the Great Ouse. The most difficult part of the journey was up the hill from the quayside in Ely to the city centre.

As the name suggests, Ely was a great centre of the fishing trade, before the drainage of the Fens reduced the amount of water surrounding the city, and consequently the numbers of eels. The many dams and sluices associated with managing the water courses have also hampered passage of eels, who must return to the Caribbean to spawn. There is now just one eel catcher left in the area, but back in the middle ages they were so plentiful that the taxes were paid in eels. A wealthy local fishmonger was buried before the altar in the Lady Chapel, and his brass remains.

The monastic buildings at Ely were not destroyed at the Reformation, becoming used by the King’s School. The buildings have been extended, but the old monastery forms the basis of the school. The school is much older than the re-foundation by King Henry VIII. It can trace its origins back to the 10th century, when the monastery was rebuilt following the Danish period of rule, when the monasteries and cathedrals in East Anglia fell into disuse. Within the first forty years of the school’s foundation it was attended  by Prince Edward, who became the king known as Edward the Confessor.

Ely is a major hub on the rail system and over two million passengers used the station in 2014; many more passed through. Cambridge is the most popular local destination, but Ely is the meeting point for more lines. Almost all rail traffic leaving East Anglia must pass through one of the junctions at Ely. This means passengers from Kings Lynn to London, Norwich to Liverpool, Cambridge to Peterborough, Bury St Edmunds to Ely and Birmingham to Stansted Airport; this does not include such routes as Norwich to Cambridge and Ely to Ipswich. Add to these passenger numbers the daily freight traffic of sand wagons from Middleton Towers and containers from Felixstowe port, and it is no wonder that the junction needs urgent upgrading. It is a pity that Rail Track cannot afford to pay for the work.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA

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