14 February 2010


At Wicken Fen

Living here, it is easy to forget that England has so much variety, so much beauty, so much history, so much evidence of our forefathers' ingenuity.

Shirley and I decided to have a weekend break in an area of England we hardly know - the fenland north of Cambridge. Here the rich peaty soil is as black as coal. The mainly flat landscape is criss-crossed with dykes and ditches that were first dug by hand in medieval times to drain what was once a waterlogged marshy world. Above those marshes, occasional clay and gravelly hillocks rose - perhaps only a few feet higher than the surrounding marshes but it was here that ancient fenland settlements grew like islands. One such island was The Isle of Eels where the tiny city of Ely is situated. In medieval times eels were incredibly plentiful in the area and they were an important source of both food and wealth. It is said that each stone of the magnificent Ely Cathedral was paid for in eels.

Ely Cathedral began as a simple Saxon church in AD 673, founded by Saint or Queen Ethelreda. So when the Normans arrived, there had already been an important place of worship in Ely for four hundred years. They set about constructing a vast abbey and monastic complex. That job took over a hundred years to complete and then in the fourteenth century, reflecting East Anglia's economic power, further additions were made including the unique "Octagon" in the centre of the cathedral with its lantern tower that rises 43 metres above the ground.

Above - Ely's "lantern" - internal and external views.

For me one fascinating aspect of medieval church construction concerns the origins of the stones that were used. Around Ely there is no stone at all. The limestone that was selected had to be brought along ancient waterways by barge from quarries over fifty miles away. Imagine that! Hewing huge blocks, dragging them onto carts, taking them to primitive wooden wharves to manoeuvre on to wooden barges that were powered by sails or horses and then days later dragging those same blocks from the Great Ouse wharf at Ely before hauling them up to the cathedral site. Voyage after voyage. The audacity of it! And what was driving them? The power of Christian belief or some sort of economic might that had to declare its presence?

On Friday night we had an amazing curry in the Sylhet curry house on Market Street, drank several beers on Saturday night and on Sunday morning we headed south to Wicken Fen - a National Trust property. Wicken is both a bird sanctuary and a piece of the original fenland landscape with sedge meadows, an original wind-driven pump, reed beds and watery channels. Agriculture has never mastered these unique acres.

Studying the map, I see Thetford, Downham Market, Kings Lynn, Saffron Walden, March, Chatteris - all Fenland or East Anglian towns we have never seen. This was once the cradle of England's economic power - especially as the wool trade burgeoned in the fourteenth century. I think we will be back some day soon...


  1. Yes, YP, there is so much history and variety in the UK it is easy to overlook it. We were in this area a few years ago and enjoyed being there. I remember thinking that there are two "Elys" one in Cambridgeshire and one in Cardiff. Do not know whether the latter is similar to the former.

    A photographer said on Radio 4 recently that any great structure (which we admire) is never created without some pain being involved. He is spot on for pointing that out...it is too easy to overlook this. I should imagine that the construction of Ely cathedral featured amongst those enormous structures...

    The curry and the beers also sounded very good!

  2. You do a grand job with Geography! I thought you were an English teacher, er, teacher of English. (I guess it is a foregone conclusion that you an English teacher.)

  3. Was Ely really named after its profusion of eels? Good job there weren't a lot of pike.

  4. You'll have to add Boston to that list as well, YP - once the second most important port after London, with a church as fine as Ely and a local ale to quench the hardest Yorkshire thirst.

    Flat can be good, sometimes.

  5. HADRIANA The Ely near Cardiff was once a rural village but is now essentially a council housing estate. Its name comes from the River Ely. Some researchers insist that the name derives, like Ely in Cambridgeshire, from the abundance of eels once found there. However, there is much uncertainty - such is history.
    RHYMES WITH... During my high school years I was always top of the class in Geography, bottom in Physics and usually fourth or fifth in Engliah. Perhaps I should have taught Geography.
    MICHAEL Yes it was named after the eels. Your reference to pikes could be construed as vaguely racist but it made me chuckle.
    DOTTEREL COTTON (BRANNING) Yes you're right - Boston. That should have been on my list. I have driven by it from Norwich and Great Yarmouth but have never actually been there. I know it was very important in the middle ages.

  6. I expect the answer to "And what was driving them? The power of Christian belief or some sort of economic might that had to declare its presence?" is beer. Beer and eels. When it comes down to it, the need for food and drink each evening has probably been the driving force for most days' works on any project in the world. And still is.

  7. I was born in Ely (that makes me an Elean, apparently, even though we were Irish immigrants). My dad was headmaster at The King's School - the cathedral choir school - and he is buried near the west door. My bedroom window looked out over the cathedral. Of course, I never appreciated the place and left at 18. This post is a timely kick-up-the-arse to go back.

    Try Newmarket, Bury St Edmunds and the Suffolk wool towns with their big, prosperous timber-framed buildings - a really lovely part of the world.

  8. KATHERINE I take your point but the patrons had to provide those eels and that beer so what was driving them?
    MALC Ely? I had visions of a snotty-nosed you running around in The Black Country without shoes but with a crust of stale bread in your hand. Now I discover a different Malc. Did they let you into The King's School and were you a choirboy?

  9. The contrasts within our country never cease to amaze me.

  10. As it happens I'm only Black Country by marriage. I didn't go to King's - the old man didn't like the idea of me going to the school at which he taught. My Granny came from Walsall though.


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