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
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