Wednesday, July 31, 2019


I took a little day trip yesterday to the city of Ely, about 14 miles northeast of Cambridge and a little more than an hour north of London by train. I've long wanted to see Ely (pronounced "EElee") because I've been told that my ancestors came from that part of England, hundreds of years ago. I think this was something my grandfather learned doing genealogical research, although I don't have any of the evidence at my fingertips now.

Ely is most famous as the site of a grand cathedral (above), parts of which date from about 1080. The cathedral was the focus of most of my visit, but I also had a chance to wander around the older parts of town and pop into a few charity shops. (I got a blue short-sleeved shirt covered with silhouettes of birds in flight -- £3.50!)

I was struck by the gargoyles on the outside of the cathedral building. Some were very weathered, while others were obviously more recent replacements.

Inside, the ceilings were magnificent. Ely cathedral is known for its unusual octagonal tower at the center of the building, where the nave and transepts come together. You can't really get a sense of the space encompassed by the photo above, but it's vast -- you're looking up into the tower in the center.

Here's a close-up of the ceiling of the tower, featuring John of Burwell's painted portrait of Jesus.

The ceilings of the nave are covered with Victorian-era paintings by Henry le Strange (what a great name!) and Thomas Gambier Parry. This is just a tiny piece of the whole.

In Bishop West's Chapel, there's an elaborately carved ceiling from the Renaissance.

And in the north and south transepts, the 15th-century ceilings include sculptures of flying angels. (You can see these ceilings at the left and right of the big interior shot above, to put them into context.)

There's a lot of beautiful stained glass, including this unusual window depicting World War II aircraft flying over the cathedral (left) and the moonlit ocean. It's not often you see airplanes in a stained glass window!

Obviously the airplane window is modern, but there's an excellent stained glass museum inside the cathedral featuring much older examples of the craft. This little round window is from the mid-1200's and depicts St. Vincent being consoled by angels.

And this window from the 1400's is part of a series depicting seasonal labors -- here's the job for November, slaughtering the animals before winter. (The pig looks suitably nervous.)

After touring the cathedral, I had lunch at the adjacent Minster Tavern. I just wanted a pint and a hamburger, but when I ordered, the server asked, "Do you want a double, triple, or quadruple burger?"

I said, "Can't I just get a single?"

"No, we only do doubles, triples or quadruples."

Good grief, what is this? America? I ordered a double and figured I could take a patty home for Olga if it was too big. But as it turned out, the patties were small and I managed the double just fine. I was also asked to choose from myriad specialty sauces, but successfully opted for just mustard and ketchup.

Perhaps inspired by my spartan lunch, I then went to take a quick look at the former home of Oliver Cromwell (above), the Puritan leader who helped overthrow the English monarchy in the 1600's. Visitors can go inside, but I didn't. (It's weird to see Oliver Cromwell's house with a Honda parked in front, isn't it? Although I suppose if Cromwell drove he'd choose something like a Honda.)

Ely's name comes from the eels living in the waterways and marshes around the city. (The city itself was built on a clay "island" surrounded by wetlands known as fens, which have since been drained for agriculture.) This 2005 sculpture of an eel by Peter Baker stands in a park near the River Great Ouse.

It began raining in the afternoon, so I spent an hour or so in a huge antique store near the river, browsing among shelves of books, china, knick-knacks, and stacks of furniture. I saw lots of amazing stuff but I bought nothing. We've got enough as it is.

I caught the train back to London around 3:45, happy to now have a sense of my ancestral home!


Yorkshire Pudding said...

That was a smashing day trip. As many reeds used to grow in the wetlands around Ely, perhaps that is how you got your surname. How co-incidental that the yellow pig in the stained glass was the spitting image of Olga!

Sabine said...

Stunning photos, Steve and what an amazing building.

I am especially intrigued that John of Burwell managed to paint an actual potrait of Jesus. I wonder where they met or whether he used an image from elsewhere.

Vivian Swift said...

Well well well. For once, I actually admire a bit of public art. That eel statue is elegant and narrative. Nice job, Peter Baker.

WOW! Ely Cathedral is stunningly gorgeous. I have stopped going to churches (you've seen one gothic cathedral, you've seen them all) but I might make an exception to see Ely. And because I'm very interested in material culture, I wold have liked to have seen the stuff on offer at the antiques store. BOOKS?? Were there no 1950s editions of Wind in the Willows you could have picked up for mere pence?

P.S. I was curious about Peter Baker so I googl'd him. He is a shy fellow, internet-wise. But I got a short bio on him on a "Steel Dreams" page and it got me thinking...I can always tell wen an artist, writer, musician has had to write their (modern usage of "their") own bio in the third person. It's a very difficult thing to do. I've had to do it, and it sucks.

ellen abbott said...

yes, excellent photos though I'm always amazed by the money spent on these ornate cathedrals and chapels to their god who taught that religious worship was a private affair and that wealth was better spent on helping the needy. at least the artists and artisans of the day got some work out of it. and that eel sculpture is cool.

Red said...

Although the cathedrals are very beautiful I find it difficult to understand why they were built in such an expensive form.

robin andrea said...

The artwork in the cathedral is truly spectacular. i can't even imagine what it was like to be standing inside there and looking up at that. Awesome in every way. I love the name of that town.

Sharon said...

What a great day trip. That cathedral is stunning. I love all the photos. That really is my kind of travel day, slow and easy and enjoying the scenery and architecture.

Catalyst said...

I hereby decree that you shall henceforth be known as Steve the Curious. Great visit to a fascinating city.

The Bug said...

That cathedral is gorgeous! If I ever make it back to England I shall have to check it out.

jenny_o said...

I keep wanting there to be another "e" in "Ely", like this: Eely. Wouldn't that make more sense? lol

It's pretty cool to walk where your ancestors walked. An acquaintance of mine finally got to visit the spot where her gr-gr-gr-grandparents had homesteaded and she was blown away by the emotion she had not expected.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for taking us along with you on your trip. I know I'll never get to England so having you show us these wonderful old buildings is educational and just plain fun!

Beth Reed said...

What a great tour of your ancestral beginnings. I thoroughly enjoyed reading of Ely. I laughed at the double, triple or quadruple burger! I bet it was good tho.
I think that I would have been pleasantly happy to have spent all that time looking at the cathedral's. Those stained glass pieces are just gorgeous. (Another weakness of mine).
I wish I had your will power. I cannot go into antique or thrift stores and not buy anything. The only exception for me is a Good Will.
I had a big fat row with them more than once. Once was over a sofa my mom donated to them by accident and although she didn't mind buying it back, the price that they asked was way too much, in fact more than what the sofa was worth. It was donated by accident when she was moving. In the end we told them to stuff it and bought her a brand new one.
The second time I found a really nice double boiler but they wouldn't sell it to me as a whole. I had to buy the bottom and then purchase the top separately. Who ever heard of such a thing. In the end they lost my business and a sale.

Have a wonderful day, Beth Reed

e said...

Beautiful photos and that is from someone not at all fond of cathedrals. Did any of your ancestors know Cromwell?

Linda Sue said...

You do adventure well, Thank you for going out and bout ! White Jesus looks very pretty in pink!

37paddington said...

What a gorgeous cathedral! Your day trips are full of adventure, great way to use your summer!