Explore Ely Easily accessible from our area by road – and by rail from Rutland too (a direct train from Oakham takes just over an hour) – the Fen city makes a great day out.
WORDS & PHOTOS: FIONA CUMBERPATCH
O matter where you choose to walk in Ely, you can see the cathedral. It is located in the centre of the city, and, as you stroll through the surrounding streets and parkland, you’ll catch glimpses of its spires. The West Tower is 65.5m tall, so it rises up dramatically from the flat Fenland landscape and is especially striking if you arrive by rail. I spent a few hours exploring this compact city, crossing the Dean’s Meadow and Cherry Hill Park, following lanes, alleys and cutthroughs, walking along the Great Ouse river, taking in the busy little market in the central square, rummaging in the antiques shops and having afternoon tea at Peacocks Tearoom.
THE MARKET AND SHOPS I arrived by train at the small station, and it was an easy five-minute walk into town. First stop was the lively little market, selling everything from cheese to household rugs, brushes, eggs and pies. The drawback of travelling by rail is that you can’t stock up on gorgeous bedding plants, but you could buy a selection of delicious cheeses, or an extremely stylish leather bag. There is a market every Thursday, with a Craft and Collectable Market on Saturdays, and a Farmers Market every second and fourth Saturday. For details, visit www. elymarkets.co.uk There are plenty of individual shops in the high street, including no fewer than two independent bookshops. Topping & Company at 9 High Street (www.toppingbooks.co.uk) has a charming blue frontage and a staggering 50,000 titles in stock. Browsing is encouraged, and complimentary coffee and tea are served. For gifts, The Eel Catcher’s Daughter at 28d High Street was a real find. Costume jewellery, homewares by Nkuku and great-value bags and scarves were beautifully displayed in a building that was once part of Ely Cathedral school. For gorgeous cut flowers and tastefully displayed houseplants, Thyme, at 30 St Mary’s Street is an inspirational destination (www.elyflowers. co.uk). It smells beautiful, too!
THE CATHEDRAL Above all, however, you can’t miss visiting the cathedral and its precincts. The monastic buildings are some of the oldest inhabited in the country. See Prior Crauden’s Chapel with vaulted undercroft, and the infirmary
buildings used by the monks. By the end of the 13th century, the cathedral and its monastic buildings were largely complete. It’s said that the stone used to build the cathedral was paid for by the humble eel, which at that time was the currency of the Fens. The shallow waters were prime habitat for the slippery creatures, and the Domesday book lists hundreds of watermills whose tenants paid their rent with the fish in “sticks” of five. The sense of history is strong, and it’s a particularly atmospheric cathedral. I kept thinking I might catch sight of a hooded figure passing along one of the lanes.
OLIVER CROMWELL Oliver Cromwell famously shut the cathedral for 11 years. He also lived in Ely, and his Grade II-listed house in St Mary’s Street is now a tourist attraction. Cromwell inherited the house along with the title “Farmer of the Tithes”, which in modern parlance means the local tax collector. The house has retained many of its original features, including some 17th-century oak panelling and wall paintings. There are plenty of children’s activities, if you are visiting with younger family members. Other than Hampton Court in London, it is the only remaining Cromwell residence (www.olivercromwellshouse.co.uk). Despite his role as a ruthless military leader (he ordered the execution of King Charles I), Cromwell reportedly enjoyed a settled domestic and family life with his wife Elizabeth. Mrs Cromwell loved to cook with eels, and there’s a recipe for roasted ones outside on a metal seat.
PEACOCKS AND THE WATERFRONT All this talk of food was making me hungry. I have tried smoked eel, and it is very good, but I was on the trail of cake in Peacocks Tearoom down by the river. It was lovely to step in from a chilly day to the smell of baking and homemade soup in the glorious surroundings of a Grade II-listed house with a very pretty garden. This is a popular spot, regularly winning national awards, so you may have to queue for a short while, but it is worth waiting. There’s a vast selection of special teas on the menu (from every continent in the world). I chose Mycroft, smoky and a little bit aromatic, to go with a savoury Welsh Rarebit and salad. Portion sizes were delicate, so a massive slice of coffee-andwalnut sponge rounded things off nicely. It’s lovely to wander by the river afterwards. The
RUTLAND & MARKET HARBOROUGH LIVING MARCH 2018
canal boats were settled in for winter when I went, but short river tours were still running. After refreshment, I browsed the excellent Waterside Antiques Centre next door (www. watersideantiques.co.uk). With everything from rustic country style to elegant Georgian, vintage toys to kitchenalia, it’s a reasonably priced treasure trove. Then it was just a short stroll back to the station and time to go home. The Fens is a special place. I like its stark beauty, sense of mystery and huge skies. As its centrepiece, Ely has heart and soul – it’s far less crowded than Cambridge and makes a superb destination for a day trip in any season. The Tourist Information Centre is at Oliver Cromwell’s House, 29 St Mary’s Street, Ely CB7 4HF, where a free map is available. For more details, see www.visitely.org.uk.