The Tab takes a trip to Ely Cathedral

Party like it’s the 12th century

Are you stuck in Cambridge and bored over vacation? Do you hate spending money, like me? Do you happen to be a fan of Romanesque and Gothic medieval architecture with copious Victorian elements?

Why not head on north to Ely Cathedral, the great “Ship of the Fens” for a low-cost, fun day out in a medieval edifice that will have you yassing and slayying your Instagram with #cathedralcore pics?

Also, as a bonus, they filmed the Crown there.

The round arches, I was reassuringly told, are “less structurally strong” than pointed ones. Maybe don’t stand under them too long? (for legal purposes, this is a joke, they’ve been there for centuries)

We’re not in Cambridge anymore, Toto

On a beautiful sunny day I decided to broaden my cultural horizons, ignore revision and head to Ely.

Blossoming tree conveniently sited to remind us that, amazingly, spring has arrived

Ely is super easy to get to – about 15 minutes on the train from the main station, and around £5 return on weekdays and £3 on weekend. If you have a railcard – by the way, always check for student bank accounts that give you free railcards, that’s how I got mine – you can get it down to £1.95 return on a weekend which is only a little bit more than some chips.

The cathedral itself is about 15 minutes walking (or seven minutes gay power-walking) from the station. As you approach it, you get a wonderful view of both the cathedral dramatically looming and the unfortunate pupils of the nearby school which will make you thank God you don’t have to wear uniforms anymore.

The cathedral is free to enter for students: make sure to bring your Camcard and don’t pay for tickets online, just show up (for some reason there’s no student ticket option on the website).

You can then enjoy wandering through the bright stained glass, sombre Norman arches, exuberant painted ceilings and decide, as one MAD magazine writer once did, “God isn’t dead. He just couldn’t afford the rent.”

Coloured light shines through the stained glass. It was even brighter in person, very cool.

History Lesson

I decided to treat myself and go for a £10 Octagon Tower tour which I can say upfront was well worth it, especially with the weather. Our guide was a wonderful, knowledgeable (and very funny) man called David who can be seen in this video from three years ago wearing the exact same shirt as when I met him.

We were joined by a married couple from north London, a man in a leather jacket with lobe piercings and no hair on his head except for an exquisite suite of long gelled hair spikes, and a couple of history MPhils from Pembroke I happened to run into in the ticket queue, recent refugees, they told me, from undergraduate life at KCL.

Sat down under the Tower itself, David gave us a history lesson, charting Ely’s rise from a small church funded by local trendsetter Etheldreda (the OG inspo girlboss) to Norman pilgrimage site, its brush with disaster during the Reformation – enraged zealots hacking off the heads in the Lady Chapel which, we were told, was the largest free-standing chapel of its kind either in England, or the universe; I wasn’t really listening.

Alas, there is no head at all to be found in this Chapel.

The hill of Ely, we were told, is really a big lump of wet clay in the middle of a now-drained marsh (once navigable by sea) and medieval engineers were constantly fighting a battle against it. After building the Lady Chapel, they accidentally shifted the water table making the big square tower of the Cathedral dramatically fall in on itself, later to be replaced with the more stylish Octagon tower.

The brochure, eager to find some deeper meaning, gushed that this incident symbolised the way God “healed what was broken” although in my opinion, it symbolised God saying “your cathedral is badly built.” But whatever.

I Climbed a Cathedral (and I liked it)

This gorgeous shot is actually taken inside the tower – there’s a big drop just out of frame. I was hanging onto my phone for dear life.

History lesson done, we began to climb a miniscule winding spiral staircase which, if built today and located in London would be renting for at least £3500 pcm as “Bijou vertical accommodation.”

It became alarmingly apparent that the man’s hair spikes were unlikely to survive the low ceilings, nor what David affectionately termed “the hobbit door.” However, executing an elegant series of ducks and bends with almost ballerina-like grace, the man’s hair spikes survived intact to the end of the journey.

The monks’ graveyard is somewhere under that grass…

Let out onto a long balcony, we admired the view over the lawns, pockmarked with picnickers. David observed that the lawns were built on top of the monks’ old graveyard, and occasionally an undead hand was known to burst out through the grass and seize a picnicker’s sandwich.

After a sneak peek inside the octagon Tower itself, complete with more stunning stained glass and felt-tip-pen graffiti dating “from 1312,” we were let out at last onto the roof. The view was stunning, if obscured with haze. The MPhils and I tried to search for Cambridge in the mist, and David added that he was a former Anglia Ruskin student himself. The Mphils surreptitiously checked for an exit.

It’s beautiful. I’ve looked at this for five hours now.

The Tower, David told us, was made up of 200 tons of wood and 200 tons of lead resting on eight alarmingly slender columns below. Noticing our expressions, he started to jump heavily up and down on the walkway making, at least in my imagination, the whole tower shake. The married couple clutched each other.

The MPhils tried to google the figures and noticed the phone signal was unusually good up so high. “It must be the power of Christ,” I said, and we all joined in a moment of silent reflection on the goodness of our Lord and Saviour for inventing 4G.

On our descent, the Pembroke MPhils asked me what college I went to. The second I said “Trinity” they exchanged worried glances, one muttering “oh no” under their breath. “Trinity is…uhh…” they said, searching for the right word. I tried to reassure them I felt the same way they did.

Even outside the Cambridge bubble, one is always marked by one’s college. At least no one was wearing a college puffer.

On a more practical note

Ely Cathedral is open Mon-Sat 10am-4pm (last entry 3.30pm), and 12.30pm-3.30pm on Sundays (last entry 3pm). Tickets are free for students in full-time education in Cambridgeshire (£8.50 otherwise). Entry is free on Sunday.

There’s a stained glass museum, not that I saw it, which is £13 entry. Tour prices are not included with entry (although if you’re a student that’s free anyway) and are all between £10 or £12 – check out their website for details.

Trains leave for Ely regularly, although if you want the cheapest ones make sure you get on the right service (generally Greater Anglia, but make sure to check)! They’re usually full of angry ticket inspectors.

Featured & all other image credits: Ted Bruce

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