Lost islands: A day on Ely

After Cambridge, the road barely changes in height, with no noticeable rises or dips. As the landscape makes its slow conversion into water-saturated farmland, the only height amid the fertile arable land comes from stacks of hay climbing high on Ministry of Defence land.

Driving through the landscape, with water oozing from the soft grass verges onto the tarmac road surface, passing regular signs reading ‘mud on road’, clearing mud and salt spray from the windscreen, it’s not hard to see that Ely was until very recently routinely referred to as the Isle of Ely. At 26 metres, it’s the highest point anywhere in the fens.

The city – one of the smallest I’ve ever visited – expands out from the narrow streets of the cathedral hill, the original Isle, to the newer bungalows of the post-war period, by way of a medieval building that was once home to Oliver Cromwell. Perhaps this is why Queen Victoria presented the city with a cannon captured during the Crimean War: not so much a gift as a threat of force for disloyalty to the crown.

Ely1Settled as a Christian place of worship since 673 AD makes Ely Cathedral one of the oldest sites of worship anywhere in the country, rivalling Westminster Abbey (founded around 600) and Canterbury Cathedral (founded in 597).

Ely2The Cathedral’s height is perhaps the most astonishing thing, even now. Even excluding the high towers, the nave stretches up to the heavens; heavens painted with scenes from the Old Testament. Its series of arches leading to the decorative high altar recalls the ancient columns of Roman and Greek temples, while outside the unnecessary architectural detail among the empty statue niches reminded me of Roman aqueducts.

Beside the cathedral – in physical location as well as as an alternative – a busy group of independently owned stores and teashops run towards the River Great Ouse, meaning there’s plenty to investigate on one of England’s lost islands.

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