Interior of Ely Cathedral
Photograph: E. Smith (1958)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection
Originally, Ely had a standard cross plan. Its long nave ran unchecked into the choir, and two transepts stuck out, giving more chapel space. Standing inside, the principal impression would have been the tunnel-like nave, with its seemingly endless flat ceiling.
However, every generation was keen to improve the building, and when the central tower collapsed in 1322, the opportunity was taken to redesign the cathedral’s heart. Over the next twenty years, the crossing was rebuilt as a vast, open, octagonal arena. New windows were added on the diagonals, wooden vaults leaping out to enclose the space, and a delicate crown-like lantern perched on top. The engineering demands were considerable. The result is a masterpiece of Medieval carpentry.
It is difficult to better this black and white image of the interior. Light floods into the cathedral, picking out the rich carving of the chancel arches and stalls. Shadows fill the heavily modelled vaults of the choir, busy with bosses, contrasting with the more restrained architecture of the octagon, animated principally by line. Smith captures the drama of the architecture, just as Ely’s Medieval builders intended.