Dominating the flat countryside, 'the ship of the Fens' is a splendid, and strikingly different, English cathedral. Similar to Romsey Abbey, Ely Cathedral began life as a Saxon monastery for nuns and monks until the Danish invasion in AD869 left it completely destroyed. Some 100 years later, the site was reconsecrated as a Benedictine monastery, but it wasn't until late in the 11th century that building work began on the present church, and in 1109 Ely was given cathedral status. This great feat of Norman architecture is epitomised in the 248ft (85m) long nave of the church, which has remained largely unaltered over the centuries. During Sir George Gilbert Scott's restoration programme, the floor was replaced with a Victorian pavement, and the ceilings were boarded and painted in magnificent detail.
However, the most distinguishing feature of Ely Cathedral is the octagon, a uniquely spectacular tower visually as well as a masterpiece of medieval engineering. With the collapse of the original Norman tower in 1322, a leading monk called Alan de Walsingham decided to rebuild something more creative. Six years later the tower was completed, but it took a further 14 years to construct the lantern tower on top, which provided the octagon with its crowning glory.
Ely Cathedral also boasts the largest Lady Chapel in England - another project planned by Alan de Walsingham - and, during medieval times, it would have been spectacularly colourful and richly decorated. Sadly, following the Dissolution, the majority of exquisite statues were destroyed or defaced but there are still a few glimpses of the original splendour. Another great surviving feature is the Prior's Door which, at one time, led into the cloisters. With its mass of fabulous carving around the archway, and the famous Norman carvings on the tympanum, it presents a truly sumptuous sight.
With so much of historical, architectural and ecclesiastical interest, it is difficult to provide such a brief account of this particular cathedral. In this instance, it really is a case of discovering the sheer majesty and beauty of a great building for yourselves. You will not be disappointed. Apart from the cathedral, several monastic outbuildings have survived and many are still in use today. A plan of where and what these are can be obtained from the staff at Ely Cathedral.