Royal Ely

A visit to Ely Cathedral perfectly encapsulates the history of England and her architecture.

The woman at the front desk at Ely Cathedral is most insistent that I buy a ticket to go up the West Tower. The next tour leaves in five minutes, and if I don’t do it I’ll regret it, as it really is marvellous and lasts only three-quarters of an hour.

I hand over an extra £6.50 (a paltry contribution, considering that it costs more than £6,000 a day to keep the cathedral open), and begin the ascent. Does a spiral of breathless tourists constitute a congregation? Not a word passes between us as we progress in single file up each uneven step, but as the handrail grows clammy and our sighs fall together in time, we might as well be hymning in unison.

The cathedral has recently become the set for a new £100 million drama series. The BBC had hoped to make it, but lost out to online film streaming service Netflix. The Crown, which follows the lives and marriage of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) and Prince Philip (Matt Smith) and is due for release next year, is being marketed as the story of “two houses, two courts, one crown”.

American viewers (no doubt the primary target audience) will not be disappointed with the backdrop to the wedding scene, at least. No less than Westminster Abbey, where the royal wedding actually took place, Ely Cathedral is the perfect encapsulation of the history of England and her architecture.

The surviving building dates back to the 11th century, although 400 years earlier the Saxon princess Etheldreda established a monastery here, of which she became abbess. From the second gallery of the tower, perhaps a third of the way up, the eye can even separate the layers of the past: the architectural orders, Victorian restorations, and shadows of the Dissolution, before falling upon the traces of one of the rounded Romanesque arches that has been converted into a stronger Gothic one.

The closer one gets to reaching the final, 288th step of the West Tower, the more these changes seem to matter. Another of the towers collapsed in 1322, having been built on uneven ground. It is hard to believe it, for the surrounding Cambridgeshire landscape looks so flat from the summit that one finds oneself forming a pretty good cinematographic picture of the invading Danes stomping over these parts in the tenth century.

Ely from above is a handsome patchwork of biscuit-brown, largely Georgian buildings and neat walled gardens. Below are what remain of the monastic quarters and the house where Oliver Cromwell once lived, now a museum dedicated to the rogue himself.

One suspects that the cathedral would be better used to inspire a 1,000-year English epic of its own, rather than as a jolly backdrop for yet another royal biopic. Still, anything to keep it open.

Writing of Ely in 1722, Daniel Defoe observed how the cathedral “totters so much with every gust of wind”. The building feels more stable today. In the 14th century a magnificent Octagon was erected to replace the fallen Norman tower, while the spectacular Lady Chapel — the largest in England — was constructed to the north of the Presbytery. The chapel bears the scars of the Reformation, but goodness, does it make one glad for surviving the heady descent from the roof.  

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