What’s the big idea?

 Well, it’s less of a big idea and more of a small-yet-perfectly-formed one, as Ely is England´s second smallest city, after Wells in Somerset. And its size gives it a real community feel – it really does seem that everyone knows each other – yet there’s plenty of things to do and see.
In the past, however, the city has been less about getting to know people and more of a place of refuge. From the Saxons hiding from the Vikings, through to the Napoleonic Wars and the English Civil War, Ely’s location in the watery Fens has made it an impenetrable place – somewhere that’s ideal to hide out and plot how to defeat the enemy. In fact, it seems most appropriate that the World Pea Shooting Championship is held in nearby Witcham every July.

The Isle of the Fens

Given its location in the Fens, Ely is famous for being fishy – after all, its name means ´isle of eels´, after the local eel-farming industry. The best time to taste this local delicacy is during May, when Ely Eel Day kicks off the tourist season with a celebration of all things eel: tastings, displays and entertainment – it’s fair to say that you probably won’t experience anything like it anywhere else in the country! Don’t worry if you can’t get here in May, restaurants down by the attractive riverside sell eel pie and smoked-eel pâté all year round. (And don’t turn your nose up, eel is very nutritious and an excellent source of vitamin A!)
Given the importance of water to Ely, it’s probably of little surprise to learn that much of the building and trade in the city was done via the water, and the area by the river is a nice reminder of this – indeed, most of the construction material for the cathedral was delivered by water, not road. So why not take a trip along the River Ouse? It‘s a popular way of getting off terra firma and really connecting with the city.

And what of the Fens?

The Fens is a vast patchwork of different habitats and includes some of the most important wetlands in Europe. Newmarket, the home of The National Stud, is a near neighbour, and there are numerous National Trust properties and natural reserves that you can quite easily lose yourself in – surely a great reason in itself for a visit.

The ecclesiastical centre

Ely Cathedral has experienced over 1,300 years of continuous Christianity, and is the focal point of a vast diocese stretching across Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. This is because Cambridge has no cathedral of its own: Ely provides it, hence the close links between the two cities.
As such, it has had a disproportionately large ecclesiastical importance both to the region and across the country – Ely has provided several Chancellors to the kings of the middle ages, and over time it has always out-punched its weight when supplying figures of national importance.
The cathedral itself has several unique features: the famously beautiful Octagon Tower is unique – its massive Gothic dome is the only one of its kind in the world; the Reredos has been claimed by many as one of the finest works of art in Europe; the Bayeaux Tapestry is believed to have been inspired by the Brithnoth curtain here at Ely Cathedral; and it houses the only Stained Glass Museum in the land.(Oh, and for historians out there, it was the first cathedral in the country ever to be restored).


So, we have a world-class house of God, on an island with a historical reputation for refuge that was in the past physically inaccessible? Clearly Ely is a hidden gem.

But the essence? Simple – a break in Ely is like going to a retreat.

Who’s it for/how it can make you feel

Ely will make you feel that you’re part of a small community that’s slightly removed from the rest of the country. And given its history and relative remoteness (although with Cambridge so near, and a Waitrose just off the High Street, we’re hardly talking about being cut off), Ely is perfect for a little escapism.

Interesting bits in the history

Given that the area was at one time a maze of watercourses, it might not surprise you to learn that Ely was originally an island. It belonged to a tribe of Britons known as the Gyrvii – likely descendants of the Celtic tribes – who, like the Cornish and the Welsh, successfully resisted Roman and Saxon invaders.

In 652 AD, Etheldreda, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, married a chap called Tonbert, the prince of the South Gyrvii and the Isle of Ely was given to her as a dowry. A few years after Tonbert died, Etheldreda became a nun and in 673 AD founded a monastery. The monastery attracted people from local villages and the town of Ely was thus born, a place of spiritual calm. You can find Etheldreda’s tomb in Ely Cathedral, where her three splendidly named sisters – Ethelburga, Withburga and Sexburga – are also buried.
After many skirmishes, the Vikings were finally chased away by the Norman Conquest in 1066, but the Isle of Ely remained defiant. Its natural defences and notoriously tricky routes through the fens allowed Saxon leader Hereward the Wake to hold out for quite some time.
Work started on the Norman Abbey in 1083, and in 1109 Ely became a bishopric with the abbey as its cathedral church (a cathedral and a bishopric ensured a superior education, hence why Ely has always provided more than its fair share of influential people to the national stage). Building continued, and by the end of the 12thcentury much of the cathedral was complete. Most of the original building survives today and is well worth a visit.
In 1280, the Bishop of Ely founded the first of the Cambridge University colleges, Peterhouse, and the link between cathedral and university remains to this day – it has always been an unwritten rule that the Bishop must have been a scholar at Cambridge University.
Also of note in Ely’s history is St Audrey's Fair – one of the great Mediaeval English fairs. Indeed, it gave us the word 'tawdry', which came from the sale of tinselly things at St Audrey's fair.
Fast forward to the 15thcentury and we can get a clearer idea of the layout and buildings of Ely from surveys (apart from the monastic buildings and cathedral, there’s nothing standing which can be older than the Tudor period), and it’s surprising how little the layout of the city centre has changed in the last 500 years.
Then, in 1636, Oliver Cromwell, MP for Huntingdon moved into the town. During the Civil War he was ordered by Parliament to conduct the defence of Cambridgeshire, based in Ely. In 1645, the Royalists came close and many Parliamentarian refugees came to Ely for safety, thus following the tradition of the town established in Saxon times.
The 17thcentury also saw plans drawn up to drain the fens, a move most unpopular at the time with the locals, as it would take away their living made from fishing and wildfowl. Then, during the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18thcentury, there was a drastic about-turn, they decided to flood the fens if Napoleon invaded, with the Isle of Ely once again reverting to type, and becoming a place of refuge.
With the advent of the railways in the 19thcentury, Ely began to grow. With this growth came the restoration of the cathedral – in fact it was the first cathedral in the country to be fully restored (a small job…it only took 30 years to complete).
Finally, in the 20th century Ely provided – no surprises here – a safe haven for victims of the Nazis and child evacuees from London.

How to experience Ely

The best place to start is probably the cathedral. It´s rather easy to find as it dominates the city (and here´s a nice surprise: parking is easy and still – wait for it – free of charge in most of the area). The eagled-eyed among you may recognise it as it has been a prominent film location for some time (Elizabeth: the Golden Age, and The Other Boleyn Girl to name but two), and it’s well worth investing a pretty large chunk of time immersing yourself in its 1,300 years of history.
Drink in the Octagon and Lantern Towers and appreciate some fine Romanesque architecture; find out why such a massive cathedral was built in the Fens; learn the story of Etheldreda and even do silly things like counting the seven-second decreasing reverberation when you clap in the Lady Chapel. Oh, and make sure you pop into the Stained Glass Museum in the South Triforium of the Cathedral – it’s the only one of its kind in the country.
After all that history, you’ll appreciate a moment’s quiet reflection, so pop over to St Mary’s Church and rest a while in one of the county´s most peaceful churchyards. Once you’re done, head along the High Street where you´ll find some smart shops and a cracking, atmospheric bookshop called Toppings (it’s part of a double act, the other one being in Bath).
Cut back through the cathedral grounds and stop at Cromwell’s House – as well as being a pub in the past, it was the only other dwelling of Cromwell’s apart from Hampton Court Palace in London. It now serves as the Tourist Information Centre, where you can find details of the Eel Trail, a circular walk that lets you capture the highlights of the city and also spend a lot of time down by the riverside. The riverside itself retains quite a lot of old-world charm: it’s a great location to browse the three-storey Waterside Antique Centre, stop for a bite to eat (there’s a n award-winning tearooms here too), or take a boat out on The Ouse.
Make your way up through the Vineyards area (monks and their labourers tended vineyards in the town), before heading back towards the centre and visiting the museum to get the story of Ely. The museum is the former gaol and includes, given a theme that’s emerging by now, an eel hive.
And finally, to experience the Fens in all its glory, try the two National Trust properties nearby, Wicken Fen and Anglesey Abbey. On your way back to Ely, why not stop at the wonderfully named Prickwillow Drainage Engine Museum: an ideal reminder of the importance of the ground you’re standing on, and the island history of this little cracker of a city.

When to visit

City pics