Clos­ing in on the cathe­dral

Fiona Reynolds walks to Ely from Cam­bridge and dis­cov­ers that the Ship of the Fens con­tin­ues to act as a bea­con for trav­ellers ar­riv­ing on foot

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Fiona Reynolds Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @fionacreynolds

ILOVE to im­merse my­self in a land­scape and try to imag­ine its past. It’s eas­ier when its ge­o­log­i­cal bones show, such as in the Lake District or on the spec­tac­u­lar Corn­wall coast, but, in some places, our pre­de­ces­sors made such pro­found changes that a visitor from me­dieval times would never recog­nise the area they knew.

‘I like to imag­ine this soar­ing build­ing draw­ing pil­grims to­wards its mag­netic pres­ence’

Take the Fens. To­day, we know them as farm­ing’s fac­tory floor: rich black soils in huge fields bounded by straight drainage ditches. How­ever, as ex­ca­va­tions of a Bronze Age set­tle­ment at Must Farm near Peter­bor­ough have shown, for thou­sands of years, the area sur­round­ing the Wash was farmed, fished and peo­pled in a very dif­fer­ent way: it was a vast wilder­ness of rivers, open wa­ter and peaty swamp in­ter­spersed with reed beds and marsh­land, home to cranes, spoon­bills, bit­terns, ot­ters and beavers, as well as cat­tle and deer. The land­scape we see to­day, al­most de­void of wildlife, did not ex­ist be­fore the fens were drained by com­mand of the 4th Earl of Bed­ford in the 1630s.

An ‘is­land’ site in the heart of th­ese an­cient fens was cho­sen to build one of our most im­pres­sive build­ings: Ely Cathe­dral. Be­gun in its present form in 1083, it took 300 years to com­plete, draw­ing on the crafts­man­ship of gen­er­a­tions of stone­ma­sons and the vi­sion of many bish­ops. I like to imag­ine how this soar­ing Ro­manesque build­ing drew pil­grims pick­ing their way to­wards its mag­netic pres­ence, earn­ing the soubri­quet the Ship of the Fens as it rose out of the wa­tery land­scape.

Al­though it’s im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate that ex­pe­ri­ence to­day, the walk from Cam­bridge to Ely is still in­spir­ing, a gen­tle (17 miles) river­side stroll, the only hu­man sound be­ing the oc­ca­sional gen­tle chug of a boat’s mo­tor. It be­gins on the stretch of the Cam fa­mous for the bumps, along­side flow­er­rich Stour­bridge Com­mon. Early in the morn­ing, the splash of train­ing eights pro­vides a peace­ful ac­com­pa­ni­ment to bird­song and cud-chew­ing cat­tle.

Be­yond Baits Bite lock, the river flows dark and deep past weep­ing wil­lows and slop­ing lawns. Soon, we reach the fens, marked by the sharp fall in the level of the soil to be­low that of the river, shrunk through gen­er­a­tions of drainage. We walk now along high em­bank­ments sur­rounded by huge flat fields and odd clumps of trees, our com­pan­ions mal­lards, moorhens, swans and the oc­ca­sional fam­ily of Canada geese.

Halfway to Ely, we catch a glimpse of the an­cient land­scape across the river at Wicken Fen, the Na­tional Trust’s re­serve. Reeds blow in the wind around deep pools of wa­ter and we can sense the iso­la­tion that trav­ellers through the undrained fens must have felt. We, how­ever, are never far from civil­i­sa­tion, with pubs and mari­nas dot­ted along our route.

Suddenly, about five miles be­fore Ely, we see the mag­nif­i­cent cathe­dral, with its tower, oc­tagon and long spine, beck­on­ing us for­ward. We can’t es­cape the modern world here, ei­ther. The rail­way sta­tion was built in the cathe­dral’s fore­ground and is now ac­com­pa­nied by a huge su­per­mar­ket. Be­low it lurks a cou­ple of vast white stor­age units, crowd­ing the pu­rity of its sil­hou­ette. Plans for a south­ern by­pass would com­pro­mise the whole ap­proach.

As we en­ter the park and climb to the Close, the full scale and won­der of the cathe­dral are re­vealed. What vi­sion, what au­dac­ity to build so beau­ti­fully and with such a sense of pur­pose and legacy that, 900 years later, it still takes our breath away.

Again, I’m re­minded how vi­tal it is to safe­guard a sense of con­ti­nu­ity as well as en­abling change. Ely’s a won­der­ful city, but we need to work hard to con­tinue to pro­tect the cathe­dral’s set­ting. As en­thu­si­asm grows for re­claim­ing lost land­scapes, both Wicken Fen and its sis­ter, the Great Fen Pro­ject, are be­gin­ning to turn ex­hausted wheat­fields into graz­ing marsh and fen. A me­dieval visitor might yet see some­thing they recog­nise. Fiona Reynolds is Mas­ter of Em­manuel Col­lege, Cam­bridge and the author of ‘The Fight for Beauty’ (Oneworld)

Ris­ing out of the land­scape: Ely Cathe­dral from Queen Ade­laide Way by Bob Wells

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.