Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The exterior of Ely Cathedral

click photo to enlarge
The exterior form of Ely is something of an oddity among English cathedrals. As you approach it across the flat Fenland landscape its appearance above the town, on a rise only 68 feet high, is long and low with towers at the crossing and  the west end. That is a quintessentially English profile. However, the crossing tower is lower and wider than usual, and there is but one west tower, not the usual two. It is principally this arrangement and the attendant details that make the cathedral something, to my mind, of an ugly duckling.

The low, wide crossing tower was built after the more typical tower of Norman date collapsed on 22 February 1322. The replacement is octagonal, the lower part stone and the upper corona or lantern, timber. It quickly acquired the name of The Octagon. This curious structure that looks wide rather than tall, is surrounded by pinnacles and topped by slender castellated turrets that echo those of the west tower. The west tower itself was built in the early thirteenth century, and in 1230 a spire was erected on the top. However, in the later fourteenth century the spire was taken down and replaced by the current octagon and the slender corner turrets. A small lead spire was added to this at an unknown date, but this too was removed in 1801 to leave the building looking as it does today. Germany is the home of cathedrals with a single west tower, so to see one in England, and with such an unusual design - more castle-like than ecclesiastical - is unusual. Moreover, to have the big tower echoed in a smaller tower to the south (see main photograph) makes for a strongly asymmetrical west facade, something that is equally odd in an English context. But, whilst the overall form of Ely is strange and awkward, the details of the exterior are interesting and often beautiful, particularly the blank arcading of the walls. The large, rectangular Lady Chapel that is a separate building but for the linking corridor is a further Ely quirk. However, the location and style make it look like a chapter house so it does not stand out in the way that the towers do.

Photographing the exterior of Ely is quite a challenge. It is closely surrounded by buildings, and where there is a big sloping pasture on the south side, there are plenty of large trees that get in the way. The cathedral green in front of the west facade offers just enough space for a reasonably satisfactory shot, and I took advantage of this on a recent visit. Incidentally, the incongruous looking cannon in the left foreground has these words on a nearby plaque: "Russian canon captured during the Crimean War. Presented to the people of Ely by Queen Victoria in 1860 to mark the creation of the Ely Rifle Volunteers." Around the edge of the plaque are the words, "Give peace in our time O Lord."

photographs and text © Tony Boughen

Photo 1
Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 27mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/320
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation:  -0.67 EV
Image Stabilisation: On