Visit to Ely
From: Deborah Gaudin
Category: Category 1
Date: 12 Nov 2006
Time: 10:47:24 -0000
Remote Name: 188.8.131.52
Ely Cathedral was nothing like I remembered. All I could feel last time we came, was this dark brooding presence, who was not at all welcoming. But this time, no threat, no looming gloom, just light, that’s what I remember first, light. From the car park The Cathedral looked so insubstantial as if about to take flight. Inside the highly painted ceiling demanded attention, followed by awe as one’s eye took off up and up into the most wonderful lantern, high above the aisle and alter. The first tier had flowers and leaves climbing up towards Royalty, then the saints in their beatitude, then angels, then Christ in glory right in the middle at the apex, one of the great lights of the Western World. Something I hadn’t known about Ely, and Elizabeth doesn’t mention either, was that it was founded in the 5th century by a woman St Ethelred. She established a nunnery and monastery combined which lasted until the 10th century. The city’s history begins in the Dean’s Watch with Duke Rollo and his castle, which must have ousted poor St Ethelred and her nuns. I lit a candle and said a quiet prayer at her shrine. A statute had been erected at the spot where Her shrine used to be.
In her autobiography “Joy of the Snow” however she does tell us about her favourite saint’s day at Ely, which is the Feast of St Ethelreda. Elizabeth writes that the city gave thanks that day, to not only St Ethelreda herself; queen, Abbess, and Patron Saint, but for all benefactors of the Cathedral. Every one stripped their gardens of their loveliest blooms, and then decorated the Cathedral with, “armfuls of Michaelmas daisies, dahlias, Japanese anemones, and the first chrysanthemums, and the treasures of the last roses”‘ After all the tombs, chantry and aisles etc had been decorated with flowers, there was a festival service and the choir then proceeded around the Cathedral singing “For All The Saints”. Then in splendid Edwardian fashion, they all trooped off to High tea at The Deanery. I can only think that Elizabeth must have taken part in these parties with reluctance. Not only was she shy in company, but her figure was always so slender!
Elizabeth grew up in this sheltered city in the Fens. She and her family spent twelve very happy years here. Even being send away to school was muted by the glory of the homecoming. Her father was a canon at the cathedral and a principle of the theological college here, and for her mother it was a light airy place, with sea like views over the Fens. Here, in the hard heart of the fens her creative mind expanded and took flight. The austerity of the sweeping winds, the vast expanses of sky and cloud, the small, secure social rounds that build up a community were all vastly appealing to Elizabeth. I went and sat outside Bishop West’s Chantry Chapel. Inside I could hear the hum of women talking and holding a prayer meeting. Eventually, two ladies came out. One, who was quite elderly but very smartly dressed, helped the other even older woman into a wheelchair. They both set off down the aisle twittering softly to each other like small brown birds! Very Goudgian!When the rest of the ladies had left, all of whom smiled or greeted me in passing, I went inside.
The stone had been carved and fretted until it resembled a giant wedding cake, a wedding of the Soul and mind. From the windows obscure saints stare down at me. The dominant colour was dark blue, very striking. All the hassocks have been embroidered with a Tudor Rose. The ceiling has ornate angels, blowing trumpets, praying, all in a very elaborate Italianate manner. The sun came and went on the page and I felt an affinity with Elizabeth Goudge I had not looked for last time I came. Psalm 84:10 arrested my attention as I was leaving the chapel. I would rather be a Doorkeeper in the house of My God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness. Although the tents of wickedness sound quite fun!
The sentiment is one I concur with. Our last port of call was The Lady Chapel. Again the first impression was one of light. It had been the brunt of Parliamentarian anger, as it was dedicated to Mary, an idol, as they saw it. All the statues and frescos portraying the life of Jesus and Mary had had all their heads smashed off. No carving was left intact. The windows were smashed, which lost all the medieval glass, but did let the light in. A new statue of the Virgin Mary has been commissioned for the millennium. She is large, very blue, and has Her arms held aloft and empty. Her son has already been taken from Her. But She has more left to give. Although She looked a little Disneyeque, She was very striking. The whole place appeared to be scoured out. It reminded me of a woman after her menopause, not ready for death, with life still in her, children of her body gone, ready for children of the mind to take their place. Again, I don’t know why, Elizabeth seems to miss out all mention of the Lady Chapel. I know that she wasn’t anti catholic, and indeed writes movingly about their faith. Like all truly spiritual people, she does not differentiate between faiths. It is the love of God and the striving for right motive which she depicts. Work men were renovating the Processional Way to the chapel and had already completed the chapel ceiling. With the aid of a wonderful mirror on wheels, we were able to see all the bosses. There were two dragons curled up asleep, like cats. The Way had been repaired using lovely wood and gold headed angels, putti, as in Henrietta’s bedroom in Wells.