Ely Cathedral sits atop a marshy island at a dizzying 26 metres above sea level. But this cathedral is far from bog standard.
The town was a religious settlement long before its cathedral was built. In 673 an old lady called Ethel(dreda), committed to a chaste life (much to her husband’s displeasure), founded a monastery in the town. Alas, Ethel’s good work was undone by rampaging Vikings in eight hundred and something. Although a Benedictine monastery was thrown up in the late 10th century it wasn’t until Norman the Builder turned up in Ely around 1090 that folk started thinking on a grander scale.
A strong man with a predilection for robustness and symmetry in his work, Norman set about building what would become one of England’s most striking examples of the Romanesque architectural style.
I consider the magnificent nave at Ely his greatest achievement. The aisle of the cathedral extends through three storeys of semi-circular arches in order to support the weight of its roof. The columns of the first row of arches are six-foot wide. Norman’s nave has a stentorian sturdiness; a humbling vastness. Standing where it meets the crossing, beneath Ely’s Gothic lantern, and looking back towards the west front at the receding perspective of his architectural equipoise, it can look as if the space is as tall as it is long.
Now, that bog I mentioned earlier, I’ll get to it shortly, but first let’s fast-forward a couple of hundred years to 1321. Norman has popped his clogs, leaving quite a legacy. However, fashions change and Norm’s descendants have become Goths. They have started pointing their arches, ribbing their vaults and flying their buttresses. As we join them they’ve just completed a rather exuberant ‘extension’ to the north side of the cathedral called ‘the Lady Chapel’, commissioned to do so by Ely sacrist Alan of Walsingham.
But then 1322 rolls around and, disaster! The builders who put the extension in must have dug beneath the water level. As a result the crossing tower has collapsed! There’s a big hole in the middle of the cathedral.
What follows is one of the great architectural success stories of the medieval age. Faced with a cavernous lacuna above where the altar and choir used to be – not to mention grappling with what this meant in theological terms – Alan and his Goth builders, led by a Mr. Bill Hurley (later employed by the King as it happens), covered the void by erecting an ingenious octagonal structure sitting atop the eight remaining Norman stone columns. The ‘lantern tower’ consisted of eight solid oak tree trunks sitting vertically atop each of Norman’s columns and held in place by a set of interconnecting horizontal and diagonal timbers (more akin to enormous railway sleepers). This wooden structure was then further reinforced with lead. Should you stand beneath the lantern at Ely, bear in mind that there is 200 tons of oak and the same of lead suspended above you – a hymn to the ingenuity of Norman’s Gothic sons.
I usually visit Ely Cathedral twice a month, often to sit in the nave and listen in on choral evensong on a Sunday afternoon. For me it is a humbling space that inspires a kind of regular recalibration. A human space, too, for captured in its fabric are its own vicissitudes; its own tales of mutability. Whilst Ely reminds me of my relative insignificance in Whoever’s grand plan it also assures me that great things are possible.