I came across today’s offering quite by chance when I was dipping into my nineteenth century Bradshaw’s Railway Guide. I’m currently in Ely, Cambridgeshire – a place, if I can digress, that brings back pleasant memories.
I once had a chance encounter with one of my favourite children’s authors – Philippa Pearce, who wrote not one but two classics: Tom’s Midnight Garden (probably my favourite children’s novel of all time) and Minnow on the Say (not far behind!) I was talking to her about the Cambridgeshire setting of both novels, and before we parted she persuade me to make a detour to Ely on the way home. In the former novel, Tom travels back in time to the Victorian era and befriends a girl called Hattie; it’s winter, and they skate along the frozen River Cam all the way to Ely. Philippa told me to go up the cathedral tower, where you get a great view of the surrounding countryside – and she was right!
Back to business. Bradshaw’s tells us that in the vicinity of Ely is a Norman church where “Ribbons” were formerly blessed. at a shrine to St Audrey. The story is that she was a nun (originally known as St Ethelreda) who liked gaudy necklaces (the word ‘necklaces’ is used in these stories about her, but I suspect, given the period, they were probably ‘neck laces’) and died of a throat tumour as a divine punishment. The Diocese of Ely says she actually died of a plague that took away several of her fellow nuns at the same time, but anyway she became the patron saint for people with diseases of the neck or throat. In time, a fair came to be held in her honour at which at which rather poor quality necklaces were sold. Plus the wearing of such embellishments was very much frowned upon by the strong Puritan presence in the area.
Over time, the term “St Audrey necklaces” became corrupted into “Tawdry necklaces”!