Ely is so deeply familiar. I know its faces, streets and trees; the stones shout aloud.
This visit was a goodbye in many ways. Seven years in Bury St Edmunds was a return to East Anglia after time in St Andrews, Cambridge, London, Manchester and Bradford, and this summer Peter and I head north again. Away from more than Suffolk.
I spent the 1970s in Ely, and the town thrives today, no longer the grumpy little place I remember. The market is wonderful; the riverside a great place to moor, the antiques warehouse a treasure trove. This weekend there’s an Eel Festival,so we’re going to miss the parade of eels (acrylic) through the town with other eely games. At this time of the year, everything is blooming, as now the sun shines – all is green, green and full of blossom. The park looks wonderful; all those stately old trees many of which I climbed as a child; including the old London plane tree, always ‘the wonky tree’ in my mind (where I had my first kiss, aged 10) which still flourishes in the Dean’s Meadow.
I walk along the close, past the gate to home, and the long garden squeezed between the Bishop’s House and the Priory, where we had hedgehogs galore back then, and where mum was always digging up signs of monastic living from centuries ago – oyster shells, fragments of this and that. The old pear tree espaliered against the top wall, where one spring I put a milk bottle over a growing pear until there it was, trapped inside, freedom only possible when it rotted, or the bottle broke. And there, the drawing room window, through which I’d blast Rolled Gold. The Bishop then, Ted Roberts, never complained. Perhaps he liked it.
The Cathedral now is resplendent with a lovely new altar and furniture – thanks to a legacy from the Rt Revd Peter and Jean Walker. He was Bishop of Ely from 1978 – 1989. I remember his wisdom as I began to explore my own vocation to priesthood. How he talked of the priest, the preacher, the prophet and the pastor, how each needs to be owned and developed as a gift. The altar is a great memorial. It is octagonal, and seems to have been lowered from the Octagon above; a lovely rich colour and shape that holds the space perfectly, without drawing attention unnecessarily to itself. Elegant, contemporary and fitting. I gather the old choir stalls (which were new and radical in the 70s) are gone to Halifax Minster and my friend Hilary Barber.
Morning Prayer and the following mass each morning give me the chance to catch up with Canon Jessica and Dean Mark, and Canon Vicky came to supper after Evensong on Wednesday evening. The office is said reverently and seriously, with silence and care, with a real sense of this being the heart of the corporate life of the Cathedral. The girls’ choir, singing on Wednesday, sounded pure and strong. Mark and I talked of Canon Joe Hawes, a good friend of his, who will be the next Dean of St Edmundsbury. He will do a great job; and that makes it easier to say goodbye to Suffolk and the Cathedral there. I’m preaching in Ely in October, and very much looking forward to coming back. Ely and its close has so many memories. Not all of them happy – it wasn’t always easy to grow up there, surrounded by school and Cathedral close. Every time I return, I lay one or two more ghosts. They are in good company, I think to myself, as during Morning Prayer I contemplated the final resting place of the ossa of the seven 10C and 11C bishops and martyrs, some “caesus a Dani” in Bishop West’s Chapel. Ely takes to ghosts; it knows what to do with them.
After prayers, I walk the familiar way that each Tuesday morning I went, like snail, to my flute lesson. Philly Jane is an old and dear friend. I had the privilege of taking the funeral last September of her late husband John, who had valiantly persevered each week as I laboured away, always guilty at my lack of practice. He made lutes, and was ordained later in life. We read George Herbert’s Aaron’s Drest at the funeral. Their home was a haven at times during my teenage years – the alternative home everyone needs at times. The need now: a washing machine.
On her kitchen wall a picture by John Glover of Ely Market. Thursday morning found Viv and me there, finding all sorts of useful and edible things, and then, on the way back to the river, yet another visit to Cutlacks, who have seen a lot of us this week, and it’s great they are still there, a family concern. We’ve done a lot of kitting out of the boat this week. It’s so satisfying, to do little jobs that leave you feeling slightly more sorted.
Scholar Gypsy passes on her way along the river. Simon is off to Little Thetford to do some writing, but will join us at Prickwillow on Saturday. Good to put a face to the father of Jez, a friend of my son Jonty. I must read the Matthew Arnold sometime. I think of Michael Collins Persse in Geelong, Australia, and his poignant memoire of his dear Oxford friend, another scholar gypsy. Michael started at Geelong Grammar School the same day as my father did, two Poms from England in the 1960s. He’s still going strong, with his great archive of books. When HRH Prince Charles finished at Gordonstoun, he went to GGS, and Michael took special care of him, coaching him for Cambridge. I’m looking forward to seeing over Scholar Gypsy, curious to see how Simon has created and sorted the space.
We’d done the charity shops on Wednesday morning in the rain, and it was great to bump into and catch up with Gill who now teaches as King’s Ely. We were at St Andrews University together in the 1980s. And back on the boat, King’s Ely girls and boys are out in sculls, pairs and fours, and canoes, coached by a member of staff who was there when I was a pupil in the 1970s. Some things really don’t change.
The boat houses have, though. Cambridge University has theirs, further down the river, sporting their sponsorship from a large American bank.
Kingfishers, crested grebes, swans, swallows, geese and duck with young, heron – the bird life is still there; but oh, I feel the pressure wild life suffers today. Eels, for instance. Plentiful in the 1970s, when my brother used to catch them, alongside the bream, perch, tench and gudgeon. It was good to see a great crested grebe catch and eat a fish just there, a few yards away from the boat.
As we travel through the towns of England, I’m keeping an eye on rough sleepers – another symptom of contemporary Western lifestyles that can be so brutal on the vulnerable, and careless of resources – people and environment. There were at least four we saw in Ely. Do support the Church Housing Trust with a donation.
Toppings wasn’t there in the 70s. It’s a great book shop, bucking the trend of internet shopping, secure in its reputation for books and coffee. Viv and I sat amongst the art books and poetry, and I showed her my purchases. Jenny Uglow’s biography of Edward Lear – a signed first edition! Her treatment of Bewick the bird engraver was brilliant, so I can’t wait to read this. Alexandra Harris’ Weatherland – which seems appropriate, with weather so important to us just now; Mark Cocker’s Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before it is Too Late? (I passionately hope so); and more Iris Murdoch as I read all her novels. Already ticked off are The Bell, The Sea, The Sea; Nuns and Soldiers; The Italian Girl, and now, just finished, her strange last novel Jackson’s Dilemma. Written when her dementia had begun to set in, as John Bayley records, it seems as if she is already losing the plot. It is held, but only just – and does Jackson represent her growing enigma to herself? We never get to the bottom of him; never quite understand his dilemma. I’m not sorry to finish it. Though perhaps my reading was clouded by the knowledge of her dementia. What if I had read it, unaware? What did I miss because of my pre-judgement? Novels take you in; or we hold back. I held back on this one, not quite trusting Murdoch to be Murdoch. Do I do that with people? With myself? Perhaps inevitably. It’s The Philosopher’s Pupil next. I feel safer as I anticipate this one.
Good bye to Ely. It’s a place I’ll always visit with strange and deep layers of knowledge. I have abided and dwelt there during formative years. Such knowledge cannot be unknown. I know myself as I was then (or think I do), and as I am now, and the conversation is always worth it.