On September 3rd, a sunny Saturday, we went off to see Ely Cathedral and to take in the other glories of the city: Topping's Bookshop, and the Almonry Restaurant, where we had an idyllic cream tea with good friends in the shadow of one of the most beautiful buildings in the country - maybe even in the world.
I've been fond of Ely Cathedral for a very long time. "Tom's Midnight Garden" by Philippa Pearce is one of my favourite children's books. There's a lot about Ely Cathedral in that and though we didn't manage to climb all those stairs to the top of the tower on this occasion, I intend to do so next time. Also, Ely is the cathedral in the Roth Novels of Andrew Taylor, which I admire enormously. These are called THE FOUR LAST THINGS, THE JUDGEMENT OF STRANGERS and REQUIEM FOR AN ANGEL and I recommend them unreservedly.
We were lucky on the day we went. It happened to be the wedding day of Mark and Joanna, and though part of the nave (choir stalls, etc) was out of bounds, we had the benefit of the organ playing marvellous music, the sun streaming through the doors and lighting up the whole cathedral and hearing Mark and Joanna exchanging their vows, as well as what the presiding clergyman was saying to them about Etheldreda, who founded the Cathedral. The Cathedral website is full of information about its history.
Her story is fascinating. She wasn't actually very sold on marriage. She ran away from her first husband, and the marriage was unconsummated. She took shelter on the Isle of Ely and founded an Abbey. You can read all about her (and it's fascinating!) on the Early British Kingdoms website.
Cathedrals, as well as being grand and imposing buildings, built to glorify God and enthrall and awe a public that couldn't read and didn't have television (I'm not being frivolous here. The stained glass windows are a sort of permanent display of highly-coloured and exciting images and very beautiful they are too) also have small corners where eccentric things can be found. This, in one of the very oldest parts of the building caught my eye:
Something else caught my eye also, and I think is going to be an inspiration for some kind of story. Etheldreda famously embroidered vestments for St Cuthbert of whom she was very fond, and on a wall right by the Cathedral Shop there's this banner, showing the Saint, which is carried in processions:
Anyone who's read my work knows that I'm a sucker for handicrafts of any kind but best of all was this. I'm putting it up even though it's illegible what with the glare and the size of the print but you must take my word for it, that what it says is that the banner was embroidered by MISS YARNS ....yes! Can you credit it? She did the work in Bayswater in 1910 and I'm busy imagining what sort of person she must have been...watch this space.
After leaving the Cathedral and before going for our tea and scones, we visited Topping's of Ely. This bookshop is a treasure house and a model of what a bookshop ought to be. It was founded by Robert Topping (ex-Manchester Waterstone's Deansgate branch)and I'll be returning to it often, I hope. Anyone who's around this area (or in Bath where there's another shop) should definitely drop in.
What struck me, thinking later on about all I'd seen was this: various strands of my own history were woven together here. One of the friends we met for tea I've known since I was 18 years old and that's half a century. The bookshop took me back to my days in Manchester and seeing Robert Jones behind the counter was very nostalgic. Books set in Ely took me back, not only to the places they described but also to where I was when I read them....and so on. Everything seemed linked in very ordinary but still amazing ways and I saw all sorts of connections between things that I'd never seen before.
To finish with, here's a picture of me. This is what I looked like in Ely on a sunny Saturday in September.