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There are some places where the past intrudes into the present in an inescapable way. A New Year’s Day visit to Ely turned out to be one such. It was quiet, with a dull light and a chilly East Anglian wind which made one keen to find some kind of shelter. From the railway station we headed for the cathedral, approaching from behind, which made it seem a beacon in the middle of a medieval landscape. I remembered seeing it before from afar across the flat fenland. The only rise in the land for miles. The Isle of Ely.



The interior was dimly lit and it was easy to be taken out of the present time. We wandered around soaking it in, halting at anything that caught our eyes.




Suddenly I felt I could be in an M R James ghost story, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book maybe or An Episode of Cathedral History:

“It was nearly five o’clock; the short day was drawing in, and the church began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises – the muffled footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day – seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.”

(from Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book copyright Nick James and the James Estate)

The Lady Chapel was quite different from the main cathedral, a blaze of light in comparison, and, although full of astonishing 14th century Gothic stonework, crockets and finials galore, strangely empty, a feeling enhanced by the complete absence of statues in the niches and missing heads on the figures that did remain. Almost the only whole figure was the statue of the Virgin Mary over the altar.


I discovered later that this was a recent, controversial addition. Strangely I also discovered M R James had written a book on the Lady Chapel.


Back in the main cathedral on our way up to the wonderful Stained Glass Museum inserted in the upper part of the cathedral, a niche in a pillar revealed a copy of an icon by Andrei Rublev, which then transported me to medieval Russia (via memories of the Tarkovsky film).

Leaving through the main door we came out into the town and spotted the time capsule that is Topping and Company Books.


I remembered reading about it, on the Richly Evocative blog. What a joy, packed with three floors of books, with seats and tables. By the time we escaped the light was definitely going.


A final bit of Gothic spotting and we headed for the river to get back to the station. The wonderfully named Great Ouse was a bit bleak now.

Strange sights were not over though. The inhabitants seem proud of what appear to be dredgings from the river.



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