Ely Cathedral (via Cambridge)

Ely cathedral has a history stretching back nearly fourteen hundred years and a strange, asymmetrical beauty which seldom fails to cast its spell on all who visit. No tourist, however “monument fatigued” they may have become, who encounters the Ship of the Fens on a sixteen mile detour from “must see” Cambridge can come away disappointed.

I’ve assembled a selection of photographs from several visits of the last few years and was very pleased to come across my father’s snowy pictures from 1970 as I remembered him speaking of the cathedral with great fondness in spite of the fact that we had no family connection with the region. A guide book and a little time are necessary to pick out the different architectural periods, for this building was begun in the twelfth century and illustrates numerous phases of construction, destruction and renovation. I am forced to admit that the story gets a little complicated (even tedious) at times but I once witnessed a party of VIPs being shown around by senior clergy and heard a laggard deeply engaged in a mobile phone conversation on the subject of high finance. He appeared completely blind to all around him so we can only hope that the transactions involved were of ultimate benefit to the cathedral upkeep.

The story of Ely begins with the story of A Lady. Aethelthryth, also known as Etheldreda and later St Audrey, was a seventh century princess of the East Angles who took a vow of virginity as a young girl. This was not such a terrible thing in the days when the childbed was so often also the deathbed but Etheldreda actually managed to convince her first husband to respect these vows. After King Tonbert’s death, however, a second political marriage to Prince Egfrid of Northumbria was not so harmonious. In the best traditions of cheap historical fiction, this rogue came to regret his decision to allow her to remain a virgin and attempted to abduct her from the cloister by force. She managed to flee and used the bequest from her first marriage, the Isle of Ely, as a refuge where she became Abbess of her own monastery. Many local legends embellish this story and were later depicted in the stones and stained glass of the cathedral but Aethelthryth really did exist and her clear identity and strength of purpose are in keeping with the role of women in early Saxon England.

We’ve seen before how strange and unique solutions were found to the building problems of the middle ages and the central octagon and magnificent lantern of Ely are perhaps the finest examples in all of England of the beauty born of this ingenuity. When the Norman tower fell down in the fourteenth century (as they had an unerring tendency to do) Alan de Walsingham devised the solution that we so admire to this day. The guide book describes it as a “moment of supreme creative vision” but I would love to have been witness to the scene on the first occasion that he tried to explain his outrageous ideas to the rest of the monks.

Cambridge is not a place that I seek out unless I have to, so this group of pictures comes from 2010, when I needed to view the Egyptology collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum. I sent Zoltan on a whirlwind tour of the colleges with instructions that we should meet three hours later at Kings College Chapel, that sterile masterpiece of the perpendicular and five hundred year old symbol of righteous privilege. My Hungarian visitor took some fabulous photographs, it must be admitted, and one day I may re-trace his steps to identify some of the sumptuous buildings and pick out the architectural details for myself. If I can keep my mouth shut, that is, for I doubt that the years will soften my view of their role in shaping our society.

I know that I am supposed to be confining my musings to travel writing but I can’t have been so far and seen so much without trying to draw some conclusions of my own. While I have no illusions about the fact that my own country is the best place for me to continue to live out my retirement and see my grandchildren grow up I can’t fail to be disappointed with the lack of accountability exhibited by our government and financial institutions in recent years. Cambridge and Oxford sit at the heart of a growing social and educational divide that supports an elite cadre of leaders who seem to think that integrity is something that you use to stick up bathroom tiles. As more and more corrupt machinations emerge into the daylight by means of the tattered remains of our once great press, I sometimes wonder what sort of closed and protected environment made them believe that they could get away with it all in the first place.

If things are ever to improve then our premier educational institutions should be at the forefront of accountability instead of having to be dragged to it kicking and screaming. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that the neither Cambridge nor Oxford Universities admitted any black students in 2010 and, of course, the newspaper reports generated an avalanche of carefully composed excuses: “black students don’t have high enough grades”, “black students apply for the most competitive subjects”, “we have lots of other ethnic minorities”, “we do try to encourage them to apply”.

I really don’t want to hear any more excuses. It’s a disgrace. If the inequalities that are tearing our society apart are to be addressed then this seems as good a place as any to make a start.

1 Comment

  • Chris says:

    You are certainly working your way around the cathedrals at quite a pace but I’m not sure Cambridge deserves to be tucked away like that.

Leave a Reply