As we approached the intricate hollow mountain, singing from its sheltered souls echoed through the vaulted entryway. I stepped back to take in the enormity of the cathedral. Its arches and towers stretched into the sky. Everything seemed focused upward. All the building could comprehend was height.
My eyes wandered back to earth as my feet pulled me through the gate, but they were soon pulled skyward again as the inner walls raced toward the heavens. Lost in amazement I almost didn’t notice my boyfriend tug on my hand. He tilted his head toward a small inconspicuous sign by the entrance to the inner chamber.
Visitors are not allowed to enter the chamber due to service after 4:00 p.m. You are welcome to join the service.
It was 5 p.m.
So just like that this sheep got stuck at the cattle gate.
After travelling 34.6 kilometres on our bicycles and bottling up endless anticipation (at least on my part) we were not allowed to see anything more than the Ely Cathedral’s entrance.
The small section dedicated to visitors wishing to attend the service was only a few meters into the chamber. Not exactly a better view.
I was pretty upset. I’d been looking forward to the visit for a week.
The bike ride there had been wonderful with endless sunshine and green pastures greeting us the whole way.
Unfortunately, as we’d come rolling into view of Ely and its towering cathedral poking through the trees my boyfriend (J) had crashed hard.
We ended up having to walk the rest of the way with poor J cradling one of his arms and me balancing both bikes (we thought his arm was fine but the next day he went to the hospital and he found out he’d broken it…).
Tired and sore but happy to have arrived at all we trudged into town, locked our bikes at the train station and set off for the cathedral—where we found everything shut.
Religious buildings are always a bit difficult for me.
I’m torn between a wish to respect people’s right to find peace and shelter within the masterpieces of their beliefs, but I’m also driven by my curiosity.
I really, really want to see every aspect of what human belief is capable of building.
I adore cathedrals, mosques and temples because for me they are examples of humanity’s finest qualities: imagination, ingenuity and tenacity.
I mean just consider the story of the Ely Cathedral.
In the distant past there was a woman named Etheldreda, or Æthelthryth . The daughter of Anna, king of East Anglia, she was married to Tondberht, ealdorman of the South Gyrwas, in c.652. When her husband died she retired to the Isle of Ely, her dowry, in 655.
Then in c.660 she was remarried to Egfrith, the 15-year-old king of Northumbria. Through the two marriages Etheldreda managed to retain her chastity.
She left Egfrith to become a nun at Coldingham when he requested otherwise 12 years into their marriage.
Then Etheldreda restored an old church at Ely and built a double monastery (which means it included both nuns and monks) in 673 on the site of the modern Ely Cathedral. For 200 years the monastery would flourish, until the Danes destroyed it.
Etheldreda died from a tumor in her neck in 680 and was elevated to saint status when her body was found not to have decayed in 17 years of death (as the story goes).
They say her shrine drew medieval pilgrims in vast numbers.
In 970 the monastery was rebuilt as a Benedictine community and in the 11th century work began on the present cathedral. It officially became one in 1109.
But the monastery at Ely was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. Statues, carvings and stained glass alongside St. Etheldreda’s Shrine were destroyed.
However, the cathedral was re-founded with a Chapter of eight canons in 1541. After that three restoration projects brought the cathedral to its former glory.
In short, this place has been the site of the cathedral and its predecessor monastery for 1,341 years. The cathedral itself has stood for over 900 years.
Today I wove through modern markets selling products the founders of the cathedral wouldn’t even be able to comprehend as I made my way to the cathedral.
But would I be able to see the splendors these believers designed to capture the imagination of generations after them?
Because of what? Why couldn’t we share the cathedral?
Because they assumed I would be too noisy? Too distracting walking down the side lengths?
Who wants a gaggle of gawking tourists standing in the hall while a solemn service is on right?
Well, I would sure hope people have enough respect to behave when they are in a cathedral in service. If I’m slowly walking up the length of the cathedral admiring the soaring architecture and intricate murals while I listen to the word of God isn’t the goal of the church being fulfilled?
I might not be throwing myself into the service but how can I feel welcome when I cannot even enter the home?