The other day, on Easter Sunday, while I was sitting at home instead of in church listening to a service, I found myself reflecting which church in my life had featured as most important. Was it the one I went to Sunday school and was a shepherd kid in a nativity play? Was it the church that I celebrated my confirmation in at age 13 and that I remember for its deeply touching Christmas services? Was it the one I got married in, with sunshine pouring through the colorful glass windows behind the altar?
There have been many churches in my life. Churches I visited because I am into their architecture and artwork. Churches I sang in as a soloist because I was booked by their respective musical director. Churches I was living close to and whose German Lutheran services I loved (they are pretty similar to non-denominational ones over here). But there is one church that is standing out in my memory for all kinds of other reasons: the Cathedral of Ely in Cambridgeshire, England.
When I visited who is my husband today for the first time at his temporary home in England, he took me to see this incredible building in the Fens, an area that is flat and crisscrossed by canals and rivers. Sitting on an island, you can see that cathedral from afar already, and its wooden octagonal tower used to be a lantern tower. Indeed, like a lighthouse to the fishermen going for eels (therefore the name “Ely”) and other fish in the surrounding waters when there were no canals back then, but a lot of tidally influenced waters.
The Gothic cathedral was built around 1083 on site of a much older but by then destroyed abbey. It is shaped like a perfect cross with an adjacent Lady Chapel, which was built in the 1300s. The cathedral is surrounded by a church green, and the town of Ely huddles around it.
On entering the cathedral, I felt dwarfed. It was gigantic, and the ancient artwork on the ceiling impressed me with its colors and detail. We made sure to get a guided tour, and I was happy that my then boy-friend was so obviously into this kind of cultural experience. I have to admit that I almost forgot every detail we were told about the cathedral’s history. I remember that the octagonal tower came crashing down at one time and had to be rebuilt. And that there were relics of a very early English princess kept somewhere, which turned this into a place of pilgrimage. I also remember climbing the lantern tower and seeing all the painted angels and a likeness of Jesus in the cupola. And that, in looking down, I almost got a case of vertigo. I remember our group walking across the roof in the September sunshine and enjoying an incredible view of the Fens.
But most of all I remember the Lady Chapel with its destroyed sculptures along the walls. The English Reformation did itself a disservice as being remembered as a very violent time. Interestingly enough, one of their leaders, Sir Oliver Cromwell, used to live in walking distance of the cathedral.
Anyhow, the Lady Chapel of Ely is renowned for its acoustics. And as our guide asked whether anybody in the group were a singer, I raised my hand. I had no idea that I would be asked to actually demonstrate the acoustics of the chapel. And I don’t know where I took the courage from to sing in front of my boy-friend of a few months’ far-distance relationship at that point in time. Long story short, I was filled with deep joy to sing Bach’s “Sheep may safely graze” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STWtdOTmqus) in a room that had the most incredible acoustics my ears have ever enjoyed.
I think, my now husband saw me with different eyes after this. And I was floating on clouds of joy for the rest of my stay to have sung in one of England’s biggest cathedrals (though “only” in its Lady Chapel) as a foreign guest. To have found I had courage to be myself in front of the man I had fallen in love with. To have sung the Lord’s glory with an aria by Germany’s most prominent Protestant composer.
Don and I have revisited the cathedral of Ely many times since. We have heard evening song there. We have witnessed a BBC production of an oratory by Benjamin Britten. We have walked the greens around it. But never again was it as impressive as that first time, when it became the instrument of opening up and bringing closer two people of two nations half a world apart.
Josephina Karseboom says
thank you for sharing this beautiful story. It is a real pleasure reading ‘ Across the Fence every Friday.
Wishing you and your husband a very happy anniversary day tomorrow.
Susanne Bacon says
Thank you so much for your kind words and your wishes, Josephina! Indeed, our anniversary starts gray and rainy. But there’s sunshine in our hearts.
Pat Hobbs says
Thank you, Suzanne for a beautiful story. Having spent nearly 6 years in Germany on two separate tours with the Air Force in the 50s and 60s, we traveled extensively throughout Italy, France and Germany. We visited all of the famous cathedrals and some not so famous. My favorite will always be the Weis Church in Steingaden, Germany. As I’m sure you know, this church sits on top of a small hill and is rather plain on the outside compared to some of the grander cathedrals throughout the area. Once I opened the doors, however, I was momentarily paralyzed by the explosion of white and gold and brilliant colors everywhere. It was truly stunning! I will never forget that feeling. We visited that church again just a few years ago and my experience was exactly the same. Absolutely stunning!
Thank you for all your stories in the Times, and thank you again for reminding me of all the wonderful experiences I had during my years in Germany.
Susanne Bacon says
Thank you so much for your kind words, Pat! And for sharing your German experience!
I have actually never been to Steingaden, but have visited countless other churches, abbeys, and cathedrals in Germany (and elsewhere).
As I said, none of them means the same to me as Ely Cathedral, as I experienced that cathedral at a life-changing point in time in an utterly personal way …
Joan Campion says
Such a beautiful memorable experience.
Susanne Bacon says
Indeed unforgettable …
What a pleasant surprise to see Ely Cathedral in your article. I used to know it well. I lived near there at RAF Mildenhall in 1968-69. I was fortunate to attend a Christmas program in Ely Cathedral with the Vienna Boys Choir performing. Will never forget it. I don’t think England allows brass rubbing to be done in their cathedrals now, but then we could take our “parchment paper” black crayon-like sticks and masking tape and rub the surfaces of the beautiful brasses that were decorating the tombs of well-known people on the floor of the cathedrals. I still have those rolled up in tubes. I was married to an architecture graduate then who was called up during Viet Nam, and we were stationed at RAF Mildenhall.
It has been a sincere pleasure to “encounter” someone who knows about Ely Cathedral and the other cathedrals that are scattered across that beautiful country . . . Norwich, Peterborough, Lincoln, Durham, Salisbury, Canterbury. I have saved all the booklets that I bought when I visited these unbelievably beautiful structures. Thank you so much for this trip back in history. God bless.
Susanne Bacon says
How wonderful, Sharlene! I kept visiting Mildenhall, and surroundings for two years, as often as I could make it in our far distance courting days. I always found the story of Ely Cathedral striking, and I loved going back there again and again. Thank you so much for sharing YOUR story! Christmas in there must be goosebumpingly beautiful …