I spent my first couple of weeks in London standing like an idiot at various counters, peering at the coins in my hand, struggling to count out the correct change. The sizes of UK coins don’t make sense to me, but the shapes are very helpful. Today I’m going to share a few money tips with you that I wish I’d known before I went off on my adventure.
First, and probably most important, if you’re an American making a debit or credit card purchase in the UK, and they ask if you want to pay in pounds or dollars, ALWAYS choose dollars! What I didn’t know then is that most banks charge a fee to convert pounds to dollars – my bank charges 3% - and while this doesn’t seem like much, believe me, it adds up. When I booked my room in London I ended up paying a hefty transfer fee that I could have avoided. It’s also a good idea to have some UK currency in your wallet before you leave, just in case. I found it much easier to make chunks of cash withdrawals periodically and pay cash for most things rather than using my debit card. Easier to keep my checkbook balanced and focus on fun instead of accounting.
Secondly, if at all possible, it’s a good idea to open a credit union account before you travel, especially if you plan on being overseas for more than a couple of weeks. Why? Most credit unions do not charge the currency transfer fee, and that could end up saving you a lot of moolah. Most credit card companies don’t charge the fee either, but I try to use my credit card for emergencies only. Anything I can’t pay for immediately, I technically can’t afford.
Now, that crazy British coinage. First, there is no such thing as a pound note – only 5, 10, 20, 50, 100... The one pound comes only in a coin. And I cannot tell you how annoying I found this. By the end of the day my wallet was weighed down by all that clinking copper! And as if that’s not enough, there is also a 2 pound coin, almost twice the size of the pound, with a copper-colored ring around it to make it stand out further. So far the sizes make sense. But that’s where sense ends.
Next down from the pound is the 50 pence coin – TWICE the size of the pound. Then 20p – about half the size of 50p. 10p – larger than 20p. 5p – the smallest coin of all, same size as our dime. 2 pence (why on earth does anyone need a 2p coin?) – much larger than the 10p (huh?) And the 1p is about the size of our penny.
The thing that makes all of these seemingly illogical sizes less confusing is that the 20p and 50p coins have ridges around their edges to distinguish them, kind of like octagonals. So when you’re fumbling around in your pocket and you feel those ridges, you immediately know what you’ve got. From there it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it, and soon I was whizzing through check-out stands like an ice cream addict at a Haagen Dazs hand-out. (Okay, maybe not the best analogy, but I’m really craving some ice cream right now)
So there you have it. Some of my new British friends have told me that their currency system is actually much simpler now than it used to be. And honestly, our own doesn’t make complete sense, either.
Check out these pics of UK currency
to acquaint yourself with the coinage before you cross the pond. Oh, and if you decide to hop from London to Paris, that’s a whole other piggy bank – Euro-land!
Signs. Labels. Symbols. Without them we’d be lost. Wouldn’t know how fast or slow to go. Which way to turn. When to take out the tv dinner. Where to get off the train. How much to pay. What to DO.
I found the signs in England to be very comforting. Like some kindly invisible guide quietly leading, always looking after me. At the crosswalks there are markings painted on the pavement urging pedestrians to “Look Left,” “Look Right,” or “Look Both Ways.” It’s a very thoughtful reminder, especially since I’m from the U.S. so I was always looking the wrong way.
And there are no “Exits” here. Instead, when you want to leave a place, you look for the big signs with arrows that guide you to the “Way Out.” In the grocery stores, you don’t look for Dawn, or Ivory, or Dove. Sure, they have their brand names too. But they also have “Washing Up Liquid.” Lovely.
I kept noticing this over and over – so many things stripped down to their simplest meanings. It made everything feel very clear and clean. Comforting. And it makes me wonder. If all things were that way – if tabloids were called “30 pages of mostly unsubstantiated stories about various people you don’t really know” – if instead of Kool or Camel, cigarettes were called “compressed sticks of tobacco and toxins” – maybe we’d think more before we buy, before we open our mouths, before we DO.
So look both ways on your way out to buy the washing up liquid.
I got home last Tuesday, September 10th. Pulled into port around 5am. Went out onto the deck of the ship and watched as we sailed under the Verrazano Bridge, past the Statue of Liberty. The sun hadn’t even come up yet.
My brother picked me up at the train station and as we drove home, I had the strangest feeling – it was like I never left. A month and a half of exploring and seeing things I’d never seen before, and yet it seemed like just yesterday I was boarding the boat to England.
I spent my last few days in London mostly walking around. Wandered around the Whitechapel area. There are two streets there that look very nearly exactly as they did back in the 1800s – Fournier and Princelet. Felt like stepping back in time. I learned that fish & chips – that beloved British staple – actually isn’t British at all! The first fish & chip shop was opened in Mile End by a Jewish immigrant.
Saw the famous 221b Baker Street, but didn’t go in. And just said goodbye to London. But there are a few things I didn’t get a chance to write about, so I’ll continue my blog for a bit.
Till then, a few shots of the Queen Mary 2 pulling into Brooklyn Harbor.
Sailing into port - Verrazano Bridge in the background
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I heard about the Necropolis on a British radio station
my friend Zell recommended to me. The narrator described a kind of strange Victorian death train that was built in response to the dangerous overcrowding of the cemeteries in London. Seems to be a theme running through so many of the places I’ve visited – Paris’s Catacombs, Haworth’s wells contaminated by the thousands of decaying bodies in their own graveyard. In London finding a plot to bury your loved one became so difficult that graves were dug up and reused, often leaving bones and body parts strewn over the ground.
Things became desperate when a cholera outbreak killed 15,000 people in the mid-1800s. But the proposal to build a cemetery in the countryside and link it by a train service was highly controversial. Train travel was still very new and considered to be dirty and unrefined, not appropriate to the dignity of a proper burial. Charles Dickens himself hated trains. Nevertheless, The London Necropolis Company was formed in 1852 and the first train rumbled down the track with its unusual cargo in November 1854. The people gradually came to accept The Necropolis, even jokingingly referring to it as “the stiff express.” But what I find most amusing is that even the coffin tickets for the train were divided into classes! Each “hearse” was split into 3 sections, and the most expensive section was more highly decorated, a greater degree of care taken with the coffin at both ends of its journey. Even stranger, while the dead were offered three classes of accommodation, their living relatives were afforded only two! It’s easy to think of this as completely ridiculous, but we all practice it in varying degrees when a loved one dies, don’t we? After all, what difference does it really make how nicely-dressed the dead are? Makes you think.
One great story from the time of The Necropolis involves none other than Mohandas Gandhi - later the Mahatma. He was 21 years old at the time and studying law at University College in London. He attended the funeral of Charles Bradlaugh, a controversial free-thinker who championed unfashionable causes like birth control, atheism and anti-imperialism, including Indian independence from Britain. After the funeral, while waiting for his return train, Gandhi overheard a noisy argument between an atheist and a clergyman who were deep in furious debate over the existence of God. There are also stories about golfers who would take advantage of the Necropolis’s lower train fares by dressing up as mourners to get a cheap ride to the golf club!
But it was the German Luftwaffe that finally killed The Necropolis. On April 16, 1941, thousands of bombs rained down on London, killing thousands of people and badly damaging the Westminster Bridge terminus where the Necropolis train was berthed. After the war, rebuilding it was deemed too expensive, and the advent of the motor hearse had made it obsolete. The Necropolis became Brookwood Cemetery.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I boarded the train at Waterloo to visit Brookwood. Something more than just a cemetery, I suppose. I got off the train at Brookwood and walked about half a mile through an extension of the cemetery that was developed in the 20th century. Out of this section and down a busy road to the original Necropolis gates. Walked through part of the sprawling cemetery and saw many older graves mixed with newer. There are lots of wooded areas. All very peaceful and deserted. I only saw 3 other people during my entire visit – a groundskeeper busily working, a man who marched past me as if he was in a hurry to meet someone – living or dead, I don’t know – and one of the monks from the St. Edward Brotherhood who now reside in the South Station Chapel. This chapel is one of only two of the original Necropolis chapels to have survived.
In the end, what once made this place special is now gone. You can still see bits of the tracks from the old railway line that used to run straight into the cemetery, but the demise of the train service has transformed The Necropolis into Brookwood - just a cemetery like any other.
You can view a short documentary by Adam Leats
on The Necropolis and learn more about it on Planet Slade
South Station Chapel, now
home to the St. Edward
Brotherhood - this is
where the Necropolis train used to pull in
Today I can truthfully say I’ve been from the heights of the moors on Penistone Crag all the way to the heart of London. I can’t believe as I sit here at the desk in my dorm room, that just a few hours ago I was standing atop a giant rock overlooking the vast empty moors of Haworth.
After doing some digging online, I found a walk to Ponden Kirk that someone had posted, complete with pictures. I painstakingly wrote down the directions, and this morning I set out again on my search for the kirk that Emily Bronte calls Penistone Crag in Wuthering Heights.
This time I take the bus into Stanbury to save time. Then I walk down a very steep hill to Ponden Mill. Completely deserted. I’m not sure if it’s still a working mill, but it doesn’t look like it. A little creepy, I have to say. But at the same time very beautiful. There’s a stream running alongside the mill, and horses grazing in a field on the other side. As I walk down the lane toward Ponden Reservoir, I can’t help thinking what a great walk this would be in the autumn, around Halloween.
I reach the reservoir and it’s here that my directions begin. Now I’ll find out if I’m going to get lost again, or if I’ll finally find Penistone Crag. The directions tell me to follow the reservoir around to the west and up a steep hill. And guess what? I’m on the very road I was on yesterday before I turned around and headed back up Pennine Way! Turns out I was going the right way after all.
I climb to the top of the hill and there before me is Ponden Hall – the house that was Emily’s inspiration for Thrushcross Grange in Wuthering Heights. Dark, brownish stone. Kind of foreboding but elegant at the same time. Emily, Charlotte, and Anne had friends here that they used to visit. And guess who they were? The Heatons! I have to wonder if our mason, Joseph Heaton, wasn’t related in some way. But there’s no mention of him in the history of Ponden Hall that I’ve been able to find.
I continue past Ponden Hall up the hill, pass some old farm cottages. At the top of the hill is a large, wonderful tree and Height Laithe Farm across the road. I take the road winding past the tree to the right, up to a metal gate that I have to climb over. Then along a cart path on which you can still see the ruts of the carts’ wheels in the old stones.
Ponden Mill heading toward Ponden Reservoir
Gates into Ponden Hall
Ponden Hall - Emily's inspiration for Thrushcross Grange
Lane leading away from
Ponden Hall up to
Height Laithe Farm
Cart path to the moors
Now a lonely signpost directs me to take a left directly onto the moors. I walk up a heather-choked trail along a crumbling wall until I’m as high as I can go. Here the wall ends. I turn and look down and let out a little gasp. The moors are spread out below me, with a breathtaking view of Ponden Reservoir and the town of Stanbury.
Now I’m well and truly on my way. I turn and walk deeper onto the moors. The path winds above a deep valley and before long I can hear the sounds of a stream. According to my directions, this is a clue that I’m getting closer to Ponden Kirk!
Trail up through the moors
Wall running along the trail
End of the wall at the top
of the moors
View of Ponden Reservoir from the top of the moors
Trail running above the valley toward Ponden Kirk
A view of the valley from
I have to look carefully for a safe place to cross the stream. Last thing I want to do is fall and break my leg out here in the middle of nowhere! I did pass a couple of hikers on my way up, but I haven’t seen them since I left the wall. I step across the stream and continue on along the trail. And there it is, just ahead of me – Emily’s Penistone Crag. I can’t believe it. I’m here! I found it!
I walk slowly toward the crag, take far too many photos. I want to capture this moment so I can look back later and remember. There are actually two stones jutting out from the hillside, but I think Emily’s must be the larger one further up. There’s a hollow at the base that you can crawl through, and a wonderful legend attached to it – according to tradition, if a maiden passes through the hollowed stone she will marry within a year. Guess I’ll stay single because there’s no way I’m scooting down to that hollow. It’s far too steep and a good drop down. But I walk onto the crag and sit. Look out over the valley. I can see Ponden Reservoir from here, just a silver sliver off in the distance.
Wow. I’m actually here. I pick a few wildflowers from the crag. Think about Emily’s story. I can feel
how this place suffused her writing. How it would begin to seep into my own if I lived here for very long. It’s hard to get up and walk away, but I have a train to catch. And it’s pretty lonely up here. Time to leave.
Back in Haworth, I have lunch at the Black Bull Inn. Charlotte’s brother Branwell
was a regular here. Sad story. He seems to have struggled all his life to find a sense of purpose and died an alcoholic and opium addict at just 31. I wonder if he didn’t feel shadowed by the success of his sisters.
I get the train from Haworth to Keighley
, a lovely old-fashioned steam train. Then back to London. In just a few days I’ll be heading back across the Atlantic to New York. And I think I can definitely say that Haworth is the part of my journey here that I’ll treasure the most.
The trail approaches the stream near Ponden Kirk - that lovely purple heather is everywhere!
Crossing the stream that runs toward Ponden Kirk
Getting close now - the
trail to Ponden Kirk
Up ahead - Ponden Kirk!
Ponden Kirk - Emily's Penistone Crag
Heading back to Haworth -
a view of Ponden Kirk
from across the valley
I set out today with the intention of hiking to Top Withins
on the moors to see the house that’s considered to have been the inspiration for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
. They sell all kinds of walking books in the visitor center in Haworth, but I thought I might get some free help at the Parsonage Museum, the old residence of the Brontes. I walk into the gift shop, tell the lady behind the counter what I want to do, and she says the magic words to me – “There’s another place that not many people go to that I can tell you about.” I LOVE discovering off-the-beaten path places, and this seems to be literally the thing. She says she prefers this walk because it’s more out of the way and takes you past the house that definitely was Emily’s inspiration for Thrushcross Grange, AND it takes you way out on the moors to Ponden Kirk – Emily’s Penistone Crag! Well. She doesn’t have to talk me into it. She pulls out a map, shows me how to get there, but I’m not at all comfortable with venturing out on my own without a written set of directions. I buy a little book that has several walks in it, including one to Ponden Clough, which takes you past Ponden Kirk.
So. Fortified with an egg salad sandwich and a bottle of water, I set off. First I have a one-mile walk into Stanbury. Tough. Up and down some very steep hills, and most of the way there is no sidewalk. The roads are very narrow, so I have to be careful of traffic. Finally I reach Back Lane in Stanbury, a little road that branches off the main road and runs up alongside the moors. So far, so good. I’m starting to get excited. Then the book directs me to take the Pennine Way. And it’s here that I start to get very lost.
I come upon a gate with a signpost – very inconspicuous, and the book says nothing about a gate or signpost – but after walking past it a couple of times, I finally notice that the signpost says in faded lettering “Pennine Way.” I go through the little gate and suddenly I’m on a narrow trail descending steeply through thick grass and trees! I come out at the bottom of the trail onto a wide road by Ponden Reservoir. The reservoir was built in the 1870s to supply water to the mills. I look at my directions again. Now I'm supposed to be looking for an access road that runs along the base of the moorland. But I'm clearly not by the moors. I walk all the way to the end of the road, up a steep hill, and back again. I go back to Pennine Way and walk all the way back up to the top of the trail – quite a hike. Retrace my steps. Maybe I missed something. Then I see it. The access road running by the moor! I walk along it, now looking for a kissing-gate that will lead me onto the edge of Stanbury Moor. But what's a kissing-gate? I see a signpost and a little trail leading onto the moor. Is that what I'm looking for? The problem is the book doesn’t give any kind of distances so you don't know how far you should expect to walk before hitting a landmark, and some of the landmarks are vague. A gate leading onto a path by a wall could describe a dozen or more places in Haworth!
I decide to take the trail and end up walking a long, long way. At this point I know I'm hopelessly lost, but I don't mind so much anymore. Kind of cool to be able to say "I got lost on the moors," isn't it? The wind is kicking up now, so I really feel like a character in a Bronte novel! And there are sheep everywhere, just wandering around loose. I can’t help stopping to snap pictures of them, like they’re some kind of woolly celebrities. Then over the hill, after not having seen another living soul since I set out, I spy two people approaching – an older couple who look like serious hikers. I wait for them to draw near and ask if they know where Ponden Kirk is. The man very kindly pulls out a map, and after looking for a few minutes, we find it. I’m not even close. Lol… They tell me they’ve just come from seeing Top Withins, which is just up the hill behind them. If I go that way the trail is clearly marked and will lead me straight back into Haworth past Bronte Falls.
Well, I guess this is what I was meant to see all along. I decide to give up on my Penistone Crag and settle for Wuthering Heights. Some guidebooks will tell you that Top Withins WAS Emily’s inspiration for the Earnshaw house, and some will tell you that it MAY have been. Seeing it, I can believe it was. It looks very plain - a bit mean. Just a stone shelter sitting forlornly in the middle of the moors. There are some guys working on it. Don’t know if anyone lives there now, or what’s being done to it, but I ask them if they know where Ponden Kirk is. They don’t know. And now I REALLY want to go there. If the people who work here don’t even know how to get to it, it must be a pretty rare place.
I hike away from Top Withins and follow the trail across the moors toward Bronte Falls. Wow. Now I feel truly awed and a little scared. Because I am in the middle of nowhere, and I am on my own. It’s windier up here, but the sun is out. Starting to get a bit boggy too, so I have to watch my step more. I slip a few times. Lots of rocks and uneven ground. And as far as the eye can see, nothing but moors. A large tree off in the distance, a few dots of sheep. As I get closer to the tree I can hear the falls. I’m actually glad I ended up here instead of Ponden Kirk. Wouldn’t have wanted to miss this. The falls are beautiful, pretty small, but I’m told they used to be more impressive. I cross the stream and set off back toward Haworth. By now I’m really tired and my legs are killing me. Ready to be sitting down somewhere with a cool drink. But I still have a long 2 mile walk ahead of me. As I approach Haworth I see one of those tourist buses you see going through Times Square all the time – the ones with the open tops so people can sightsee. I laugh to myself. It’s kind of funny to see one of those out here, especially after having walked probably 6 miles. How do you experience the moors from a bus?
I trudge back into the village, get a drink and go back to my room at The Apothecary House to rest for a bit, make plans for the rest of the day. I decide to go and see the Bronte Parsonage so I can have tomorrow to try for Penistone Crag again. Just cannot leave Haworth without at least attempting it!
There's a wonderful biography of Charlotte Bronte that was written by her good friend and fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell
. In Charlotte's letters she describes the parsonage as a very gloomy place, cold. But when I walk up to it I think, "This is beautiful. How could anyone not like living here?" What I'm forgetting is that Haworth looks nothing like it did in Charlotte's time. There was no running water, sewage in the streets, and the parsonage looked out on an overflowing cemetery that had no trees in it. The first room I enter is the dining room. And it’s here that Charlotte, Emily, and Anne would gather in the evenings to write and read their stories to each other, walking round and round the table. I cannot believe I’m in the very room where Wuthering Heights
was written! Where Jane Eyre
was born! Most of the furniture in the parsonage actually belonged to the Brontes, and the sofa in the dining room is where they believe Emily died. I wander through the rest of the house – Mr. Bronte’s study, the kitchen, then upstairs to the bedrooms. On the landing is the grandfather clock Mr. Bronte would wind every night before going to bed. I see what they call the Children’s Study – where Charlotte and her brother and sisters would play and write their “little books
.” They actually have one of these on display – the writing so tiny there’s a magnifying glass hovering over the book so you can read the words. I see Charlotte’s room, which she shared with her husband during their brief 9 months of marriage before she died. You can also see one of her gowns, her wedding bonnet, her writing desk. There’s a lot to look at and I feel overwhelmed, so I decide to stop trying to see it all, go back downstairs. Stand in the dining room once more. Try to feel what it must have been like. To really take in where I am.
I’m standing in the room where some of my favorite stories were written. Stories that made me want to become a writer.Tomorrow I'll spend my last few hours in Haworth searching for Emily's elusive Penistone Crag!
Will I find it? You'll just have to check back and see!
That's the Bronte Parsonage in the background, as seen from Mr. Bronte's Haworth Church
The moors heading toward Bronte Falls
Emily Bronte's inspiration
for Wuthering Heights -
this used to be a ruin, but
they're working on it now
Just arrived in Haworth, and wanted to get down my first impressions before I go out exploring. Took the train from Kings Cross in London to Leeds, then switched to the Northern Line into Keighley. As we drew closer to Keighley the land became more and more hilly. Took a taxi from Keighley into the tiny village of Haworth, where Charlotte Bronte lived with her sisters Emily and Anne. Now there are high hills all around – I guess what they call the moors. I don’t know what I was expecting, but they don’t look any different to me from hills or meadows. They’re dotted all over with houses, but I suspect back in Charlotte’s day they were much more open.
The driver drops me off at the bottom of Main Street, which is a very narrow cobbled lane. It looks like nearly all of the buildings here are made of this very dark stone. I walk up the steep lane past bed & breakfasts, tiny shops, an ice cream place, a little bookstore. At the top of the hill I reach my b&b – a place called The Apothecary Guest House. The owners are so warm and welcoming. Nic asks me where I’m from, and when I tell him Ohio, he asks, “Cleveland? Akron?” I can’t believe it! He’s had people here from Akron. Such a small, small world. He leads me up to my room and it turns out I have a view of the Bronte Parsonage! I can’t wait any longer, knowing it’s right there outside my window. Have to go! More later…
Spent the day just walking around the village, got some ice cream – elderflower and chocolate, yum. They love elderflower in England. Seem to use it in a lot of things, especially drinks. This is the first time I’ve had it in ice cream, and it was delicious – just the faintest hint of a flowery flavor.
I decided to wait to see the Bronte’s place till I can go first thing in the morning. Turns out today was a bank holiday in England, so there were a lot of people around the village. I did visit Haworth Church, though, walked around the cemetery. Charlotte’s father Patrick was curate of the church, and their family tomb is located there, but you can’t see it. A plaque marks the spot under which it’s located.
In the evening I went on a Ghost Walk tour. There were only 7 people in our party, so it was nice and intimate, like having our own private tour of the village. Our guide told us that 150 years ago Haworth (pronounced How-worth) was a very different place. 2,000 people lived here then, and all of them had to share just 69 privies and 3 wells. The streets were covered in straw and sewage. The death rate was very high, with 5 to 7 people dying per day. The cemetery was dangerously overcrowded and run-off from it tainted one of the wells, contributing to the high death rate. It was in these conditions that the Brontes came to Haworth. Our host showed us a street in the village where there was a row of what they call Weavers' Cottages. Before the industrial revolution, most people worked from home, as the weavers did. It was the duty of the curate’s wife to look after the villagers, but Patrick’s wife Maria died just two years after moving to Haworth, so Patrick’s daughters took up her duties. Emily looked after the weavers. There have been sightings of a ghost called “The Grey Lady” up and down this street, and many people believe her to be Emily.
Then we went to the cemetery and learned a bit more about the masons who cut the gravestones. The term “grave error” comes to us from the masons! Whenever they made a mistake chiseling a gravestone, they would simply chip deeper in to erase the mistake – hence the term “grave error!” Isn’t that great? Our guide walked us over to one particular gravestone, and it turned out to be one that I had been drawn to earlier and photographed. It’s the family plot of Joseph Heaton, who was himself a mason. He and his wife had several children, but none of them lived past the age of two. All of them were buried in one plot, and in his spare time Joseph tirelessly worked on their gravestone. He wanted to make it the most beautiful of all, and he certainly did. Our guide told us no grass will grow by this grave because of the people constantly walking over to see it. There were flowers on the grave, too. There are still Heatons living in Haworth today who visit the cemetery and pay their respects.
Mr. Bronte himself lived to see his entire family die around him – his wife Maria, daughters Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and his son Branwell. But he suspected that the high death rate in Haworth might be due to the unsanitary conditions, and he was instrumental in bringing about improvements to the water supply.
Tomorrow I’m going to go for a long walk on the moors. There’s a 4½ mile hike that will take me past some places that were inspirations for Emily Bronte when she wrote Wuthering Heights!
My b&b is is that blue awning - Apothecary House.
The Black Bull Inn -
Charlotte's brother Branwell
was a regular here. You
can see the moors just beyond.
The Heaton Family plot
in Haworth Cemetery
It’s my last few days with my niece before I leave England, and she asks me if I want to go to Ely and see the Cathedral. It’s not far, only about half an hour from Mildenhall, and supposed to be very beautiful. “Sure, why not?” I say. But I was not prepared for the stunning beauty of this place. Truly, I think it’s more awesome even than Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s. There’s just something about it that immediately strikes you as soon as you enter. I think it may be that its design is simpler, cleaner and starker, so the beauty of its architecture – its soaring height – stands out even more. I don’t know. But the feeling it gives you is very powerful.
Ely Cathedral is one of the seven wonders of the medieval world, and it’s considered the finest example of Norman architecture anywhere. The story of Ely begins in Saxon times with Etheldreda, the daughter of a king of East Anglia. She remained a virgin through two marriages and left her second husband to become a nun in 672. A year later she founded a monastery on the site of the current Cathedral. Etheldreda died in 680 from a tumor on the neck. The legend goes that this was a divine punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces in her younger days, but in reality it was the result of the plague that also killed several of her nuns. The word “tawdry” comes to us from Etheldreda’s time. At St Audrey's Fair necklaces of silk and lace were sold – often of very inferior quality – hence the derivation of the word “tawdry” from “St Audrey”! She became St. Etheldreda after her death and for centuries pilgrims traveled to her shrine on the site of the Cathedral.
As you enter Ely there’s a beautiful labyrinth in stonework on the floor. If you follow it you end up walking the same distance as the height of the huge Norman tower for which the Cathedral is most famous. Reminds me of Christopher Wren designing St. Paul’s to be the same height as the number of days in a year. The labyrinth is intended to remind us that life has many twists and turns.
There were so many interesting epitaphs, too. One marker made sure to point out that although the deceased claimed to be of the House of Stewart in Scotland, the falseness of the pedigree had been clearly proven and he was in fact descended from the Stywards, “keepers of the pig sties.” Another was very moving and humorous at the same time: “Near this place lies the body of Richard Elliston, a youth of such uncommon endowments, regular modesty, sweetness of temper, engaging behavior… all these were defeated by an unhappy death occurred by the kick of a horse. In the 13th year of his age.”
As Amanda, Scarlett, and I wandered around the Cathedral a service began, and the sound of singing filled the air. A choir moved toward us up the side aisle, and seeing them filled me with such awe. I felt incredibly blessed to have been able to hear their music in that beautiful place. It was the perfect benediction to our visit.
The ceiling of the beautiful Norman tower
Looking toward the nave
from the entrance of the
| Me and Scarlett in Ely Cathedral || Amanda, Scarlett, and me outside Ely Cathedral |