The one-day pilgrimage from Littleport to Ely was, for the most part, straight and clear, the path raised high above a canalised section of the Cam. One of the waterways which once carried goods to and from the Isle of Ely, on this day it carried only two boats of coxless fours and their coach who followed behind in a small motorised dinghy. The views stretched uninterrupted in all directions to the horizon, with watery rhynes the only notable feature of the view. Once the domain of country folk who made a living from fishing and wildfowling, the fens were systematically drained in the 17th century and with the help of Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, the boggy wetlands were turned into valuable if somewhat less biodiverse arable land. Stretching from Lincolnshire in the north to the borders of Suffolk in the east, almost 90% of England’s vast fenland acres are now cultivated, accounting for half of the country’s ‘grade 1’ farmland.
I was walking with Nick, an academic friend with a special interest in political conflict, and more particularly, the tensions which arise in society when one group or another feels un-heard or under-served by the establishment, or the mainstream. Even on this bright winter’s walk, the subject of conflict marked our way; starting from St George’s Church Littleport where a sign commemorated that, in 1816, ‘It was here that rioters were read the Riot Act by the Reverend Vachell’. The rioters were impoverished farmhands whose meagre wages were insufficient to feed themselves or their families, and in this regard they were far from unique. In the late 18th and early 19th century many rural communities in Europe were living a hand-to-mouth existence, and their lives were often cut short due to poverty.
In 1815, matters became even worse by the volcanic eruption of Tambora at the other side of the world in Indonesia. In his poem ‘Darkness’ Byron tells us how in the summer of 1816 ‘the icy earth – Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; Morn came and went and came and brought no day – And men forgot their passions in the dread – Of this their desolation.’ Two months after Tambora, in June 1815, the English had won the Battle of Waterloo, bringing the Napoleonic wars to a conclusion. But irrespective of victory or defeat, the outcome rang hollow for the millions across Europe who were soon to starve, not only in the countryside, but in the cities too. The clouds of volcanic ash from Tambora blocked out the sun and as the harvests failed, the price of grain continued to rise. In France, groups of armed peasants ambushed grain carts on the way to market and in Ireland famine led to a typhus epidemic that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Then as now, it was the poor who suffered most and they who inevitably swelled the ranks of the marginalised and discontented.
No matter the justice of their cause, 23 of the Ely and Littleport rioters were arrested and tried; not by local judiciary, but by a Special Commission, set up by the government of the day. We can only presume they took such an extreme measure to ensure a verdict that would send the right message to any other would-be rioters elsewhere in the country. Or perhaps they simply did not trust the Chief Justice of Ely at the time; Edward Christian, elder brother to Fletcher Christian, who had famously led the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, two decades earlier. In any event, the rioters were found guilty; five were hung and others transported to Australia.
Nick and I walked on, still talking of ‘outsiders’ and whether hungry rioters, principled revolutionaries, or simply extremists of one sort or another, of their role in challenging the status quo. We stopped at one point to admire a body of water fringed with reeds; a flurry of water fowl rising up and away at our intrusion. This small pocket of nature gave a clue to how the fens might have looked before they were drained, or when work halted for a short period during the English Civil War and Parliament ordered the dikes broken and the land flooded to stop a Royalist army advance. Oliver Cromwell hailed from the fens and he understood Ely’s strategic value as a refuge, an inland isle which could be more easily defended. As with other settlements in this area, Ely stands on higher ground and the cathedral was in our sights long before we reached it, this ‘ship of the fens’ rising up against the ever-leadening sky.
Once the second richest monastery in England, next only to Glastonbury, Ely’s cathedral was spared the extreme destruction of Henry VIII’s reforming zeal, thanks to the fact that Goodrich, who was Ely’s Bishop at the time of the Reformation, was a declared supporter of both the king and his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. After Henry’s death, his eldest daughter Queen Mary came to the throne and for a while Catholicism returned as the official credo in Britain. During the five bloody years of her reign, hundreds of Protestants were executed for not embracing her Catholic beliefs and among them were two Cambridgeshire men, William Wolsey and Robert Pygot, who, being found guilty of heresy were burned at the stake in front of Ely Cathedral on October 1555. For Wolsey and Pygot, it was enough to think and speak against the prevailing ideology to be condemned; for Goodrich, there was much to be gained by backing a powerful leader, irrespective of how far that leader had deviated from prior norms and values.
Finally, entering this truly magnificent building Nick and I received a warm welcome from Ely’s cheerful volunteers and from the immense cylindrical radiators with their steel fins that keep this cavernous building heated on even the freshest winter’s day. There is not space enough here to describe the glories of Ely Cathedral, the soaring perpendicular arches, the stained glass, the exquisitely carved altarpiece, the impressive sweep of the nave; only a visit in-person can really do it justice. Even then, Ely really is worth approaching on foot if only to fully appreciate its scale and majesty. Here as elsewhere, sometimes the clearest view is to be had from a distance.
The author was walking a route devised as part of the 2020 Year of Pilgrimage,Year of Cathedrals, a joint project between the British Pilgrim Trust and the Association of English Cathedrals. Her book – We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves is to be published by Hurst in April 2020.