Big Churches in Little Europe: Ely

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Sometimes when you approach a grand building a sense of unity and singularity of purpose washes over you. Sometimes no matter which way you approach it, the building looks as if there were four structures leveraged into place by space ships and forcefully jammed together. As it happens I think Ely Cathedral is great but I won't say it is architecturally coherent from the outside.

Ely itself is a tiny village that doesn't even rate a market charter I believe. It is in the middle of a drained marsh that extends for 20 or more miles in all directions and is built on the only hill. In the right light, the cathedral can be seen from 50 miles away (well, if you are standing on the top of the corresponding cathedral tower in Peterborough). The cathedral hillside is surrounded by fields containing farm animals, probably the only place you could farm animals in the fens for millennia until the fens were drained by Henry VIII.

Once inside you are confronted with an extraordinary long thin tall building. The roof is painted in a pre-Raphaelite style showing a mixture of agrarian vine patterns with the odd transported religious figure. There is a mirror on trolley that you wheel down to stare at the ceiling without cricking your neck. In the centre under the eight sided tower (it looks like stone but is made of wood) the swirling leaf and vine patterns get more interesting and the religious figures more transported.

Ely underwent a spot of redecoration during the time of Henry VIII. The delight is that Henry's troops took their orders to rid the church of the faces of every saintly figure in a rather strict fashion. Out the side (north) via a nice little passage you can enter the Lady Chapel, recognisable by the figure of a large, buxom, friendly, blue statue of a lady throwing herself off the eastern wall under the windows there. Around the edge of the chapel must be a hundred or so statues of saints carved into the stonework, all with their heads very carefully knocked off. There is one head still in place but you have to look harder than, I presume the soldiers did, to find it.

There are few places anywhere that, I think, you see in place the passion people felt during the reformation for getting rid of the old ways of doing things and bringing in the modern. The Pre-Raphaelite redecoration of the 19th Century shows the corresponding delight of putting things back again.

I have never found Ely a particularly good place to find quiet and peace. Partly because outside is already quiet and peaceful, but also because the Cathedral has too much in it to see and hear. Converse to those in big cities, the Cathedral here is a hub of culture and excitement in for the enormous rural community of the fens. It feels like it belongs to make life bigger and better, rather than to provide respite from unrelenting noise, aggression and bustle.

The few services that I went to were quite good humoured and the singing was as haunting as the images on the roof and the headless saints would suggest. Last time I was there was the Sunday evening a week after Christmas and we all sang carols for an hour since it was going to be Christmas until the 6th of January and, heck, we love singing Christmas carols with a big choir, a small orchestra and a noisy organ. I like their attitude.

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