Steam your way to our great cathedrals. Win two tickets on the Cathedrals Express

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ElyCathedral by Ian Macdonald
ElyCathedral by Ian Macdonald

Railway travel for pleasure is, from recent experience having much of a revival. I regularly take the train from Paddington to Cornwall. Last year, I encountered a pensioner, whose holiday’s central feature was to travel from Inverness (the station connects by bus to John O’Groats) to Land’s End.

“How long do you spend at the places on the route?” I asked.

“Only the night” he replied. “My pleasure is looking out of the train window”.

As President Bill Clinton might say: “It’s the view, stupid” which can make train travel such a delight.

Michael Portillo (how enjoyable his TV series on rail journeys at home, now, also, abroad) wrote recently: “I don’t know why, but I think the eating of food is highly enhanced when you do it on a train… when the world is rushing past outside [it] can take you to heaven…”

How then appropriate, that The Cathedrals Express, taking passengers to inspirationally lifting lofty towers and spires, is outstanding with its truly excellent catering on board. This can be purchased and brought to your table if you are in Premium Standard (complimentary tea or coffee) or in First Class (ditto, plus champagne and orange juice just after you take your seat).

Portillo’s angels raise their voices higher for the inclusive Pullman Style and Premier dining: here, after the champagne and juice, there’s a full English breakfast (or a luxury brunch, depending on the time you board en route). On the return, there’s a five-course meal (Pullman) or four courses (Premier). The Cathedral Express offers two Premier Tickets to the winner of our competition below.

And, oh, all the carriages are intended to be pulled by vintage steam trains plus one, exceptionally, the Tornado, an authentic copy of the last of the great express passenger locomotives: the Peppercorn Class A 1, built in 1948/49, (all scrapped by 1966), brought to life after 18 years of effort in 2008. No wonder that the operator of The Cathedrals Express calls itself Steam Dreams.

So, many passengers are steam enthusiasts who take every opportunity to group around the engine, cameras clicking, almost salivating with pleasure, before and after the journey, and, if my memory serves, when we had a scheduled stop to “water the loco”.

In the course of their announced programme until mid-2013, there are almost 30 cathedral visits (some repeats) beginning on 1 March, with a St David’s Day visit to Cardiff (The Cathedral is away from the busy centre, in the conservation area of Llandaff, from which it takes its name.)

So, to sample their trips latest offerings, last August, I travelled (Premier Dining), pulled by the gleaming new Tornado, to Ely from London’s Kings Cross. (About half of their trips start in other, mainly southern, English stations: a very few are primarily scenic.)

At our seats, a splendid little printed booklet with a detailed map and the timings of our route (via Cambridge, on also to Norwich if desired). Brunch (scrambled egg and smoked salmon) then just before 1.00pm, arrival at Ely, where we were handed a map of the little city which told that the cathedral was 15 minutes walk from the station.

The weather was glorious. We had had fine views of the cathedral, “the Ship of the Fens”, long before arrival. Now, in its completeness, it soared above us. The approach was perfect from a gently upwards path through a green expanse shared by Dean’s Meadow and the Park.

The Isle of Ely (named from the eels in the waters protecting it!) itself in early Christian times rose above the deep and swampy marshland surrounding it, only reachable by locals who knew where there were firm paths. It became the site of one of the many Fen monasteries built by the Saxons.

St Etheldreda, daughter of the king of East Anglia, had the Isle of Ely as part of her dowry, and retreated to it, having become a nun, founding a monastery (c.673 AD) on the site of the present cathedral. That was destroyed by invaders, then rebuilt in 970, to become the richest English Abbey after Glastonbury.

Hereward the Wake held out here for some time against the Normans. After they occupied the isle they began a great church in 1083: the West front speaks of this, though its flanking north west transept and tower fell in 1701 and was not replaced.

The massive central west tower reaches up to 215 feet at its castellated top, outstripping the unique centrally placed Octagon Lantern Tower’s 170 feet. This replaced by 1340 the bulky Norman tower over the crossing, which collapsed in 1322. Central to it is the great, unique 400-ton lantern, 200 tons of oak, some of which has survived over 800 years, and 200 tons of protective lead, its windows flooding the nave (248 feet long), the transepts and the choir with light.

Below, fine pillars and carvings abound (these suffering sometimes mutilation from Cromwellians and before). There are tours of the Towers, an outstanding organ and a stained glass museum.

An air of tranquillity pervades this little city, its low buildings sheltering as if protected by the great cathedral. Just a step away from the western façade, over the bishop’s Palace Green, is Oliver Cromwell’s House, the sole surviving dwelling of the Protector before he assumed that rank. It is half-timbered, a vicarage of the period.

He lived here for around a decade, inheriting the position of “Farmer of the Tithes” for two Ely parishes, St Mary’s — the church almost adjoins — and Holy Trinity. He saw to it that their taxes were paid to the Dean and Chapter. He was also an MP. The house is now the Tourist Information Centre inside its entrance, but the other rooms have been fitted out with historical and Cromwellian touches — hands-on diversions for children, audios — finally, a wax Lord Protector dying in his bed chamber.

But, in fine weather, walk downwards down the pleasant High Street to Waterside, bordering the Great Ouse river. Here sit beside a grassy bank, where well-mannered colourful waterfowl come begging for titbits, buy a local ice-cream, and then walk five minutes back to the station, to espy soon the plume of steam, a promise of a good, as indeed it was, four course dinner and reasonably priced wine.





To be the winner of our competition, kindly provided by Cathedral Express: two tickets in Premier Class to the Cathedral destination in England of your choice (subject to availability) answer correctly the following question:

What is Ely’s unique lantern made of?


Send your answer on a postcard to Steam Dreams competition, The Church of England Newspaper, 14 Great College Street, London SW1P 3RX. Or you can enter by email by sending your answer to, putting ‘Steam Dreams’ in the subject line. However you enter, please include your street address – and phone number — and confirm that you are over the age of 18.

Entries must be received by 3 February.





To contact Cathedrals Express

e-mail:; Tele: 01483 209888 (including for brochure detailing journeys).