I have a very nebulous memory of Mr Greaves, a secondary school history teacher with a nickname that’s not for these postings, telling our class about something important that happened at the Isle of Ely, and then going on to explain that the isle in question wasn’t an isle at all. That fact has remained with me long after the significance of the historical event he was describing has faded to nothing.
Driving to the town this week the reason for the name becomes obvious; set amongst the Cambridgeshire fens which, before they were drained from the 17th Century onwards, would have surrounded this small area of raised land with marshes and open water.
The town is given even greater prominence by the vast cathedral at its heart. Unsurprisingly known as the Ship of the Fens, this Norman-built edifice dominates in the same way that the now banned cruise ships did as they sailed through Venice.
On arrival I expected to find myself somewhere like York or Durham, St Albans or Canterbury, and in many respects I did; streets walled with history, a dominant monastic church, elite educational establishments, and yet Ely was different too; seemingly smaller even than Durham, and yet with none of the obvious fortifications expected of a medieval powerhouse. Perhaps the fens were all that were needed to deter invaders.
The great church is unique too, embodying a variety of architectural styles; squat Norman columns, pointed Gothic windows, rounded Romanesque arches (reminiscent of Pisa’s most famous landmark) and above it two remarkable towers; the taller West Tower, and the shorter Octagon Tower, so beautiful when viewed from inside. But I’m getting ahead of myself; the cathedral interior will come in another post.
It’s appropriate that the place should have that historic feel; an Anglo-Saxon saint, a centre for rebellion, the home of Cromwell are all significant parts of the Ely story.