I knew one thing about Ely because it pops up in crosswords – an English Cathedral City / 3 letters (can’t be too many of those!) What I didn’t know was its location – until last year. En route by train to Cambridge from Stansted Airport, there was Ely – popping up again – the next stop, some 20 minutes further on. That’s doable, she thinks, reckoning that should we ever repeat the journey, Ely would be worth a visit. Well – we did repeat the journey……
And that’s how we ended up in Ely last week.
I know a bit more about the place now……
For starters, we had the pronunciation wrong! Hopefully, we didn’t say Eel – eye too many times before picking up on Eel – ee! (Don’t you just hate it when everyone knows you’re a tourist!!😅 😂 🤣)
Ely’s name comes from…… EELS which inhabited the local marshes (I was rather disappointed with that!)
It’s the second smallest city in England.
The Cathedral is the fourth longest in the UK.
It’s Lady’s Chapel is the largest in the UK.
It’s charming, to say the least, and well worth a visit!
Thanks to an 8.00am Dublin-Stansted flight, the 50 minute train journey got us into Ely by 11.30am. We’d booked The Lamb Hotel for one night and the London train for the following afternoon so had some 28 hours at our disposal.
The 15 minute stroll from the station to The Lamb suggests a pleasant, well-kept rural market town – certainly not a city! The centre and High Street are compact and offer pubs, coffee shops and a smattering of restaurants. You can’t get lost – not just because it’s tiny, but because there are signposts everywhere – the local tourist board has done a lot of work in promoting the town’s attractions.
Thursday is Market Day which is a nice bonus if your visit coincides …..
The Cathedral IS impressive!
Its history stretches back to 673 when a Saxon Queen, Etheldreda, founded a monastery on the site. The building of today’s Cathedral began in the 11th century and it was to become a prominent Benedictine monastery – the second wealthiest in the country (rivalled only by Glastonbury) It was closed by Henry VIII in 1539.
Henry and his advisors pondered over the role – if any – that cathedrals might play in the emerging Protestant Church. In the end, they were spared to serve three useful functions – propagation of true worship of God, care for the poor and education. In 1541, Ely was granted a new charter and the cathedral was re-founded.
Many members of the previous monastic community were reappointed to assist with worship. A grammar school was established and silver and vestments were sold to fund books and a library. An almshouse with six beds was set up in a passageway. While there was damage to statues and stained glass during the period of Protestant religious reform, the main structure remained intact although much of it serving very little purpose.
Major building projects of the era tended to be both expensive and time-consuming so construction and renovation tended to be piecemeal and a drawn-out affair. Here at Ely, Romanesque and Norman architecture styles share space with Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular among others.
The nave is the third longest in the UK (and the same length as Ely High Street!!) and is roofed with spectacular painted panels.
Disaster struck the cathedral in 1322 when, on the night of February 13th, the Norman central tower collapsed. Such was the noise that the monks thought it was an earthquake but the collapse was more likely caused by the digging of foundations for the nearby Lady Chapel. Devastating as this was for the community, it made way for the creation of one of the most remarkable structures of the English Middle Ages – indeed, one of the Wonders of the Medieval World.
Alan of Walsingham, sub-prior of the cathedral and an architect by trade, set about rebuilding the tower. With firmer foundations in place over a much enlarged base, the idea evolved of a tall octagonal structure surmounted by a lantern to allow in light. The tower wouldn’t support a stone vaulted roof so huge oak beams were used which were covered in lead. By 1340, the work was done and the ceiling was carved and painted.
The coloured panels open to allow a view down into the Nave far below..
Once the Octagon was completed, attention was turned back to the Lady Chapel which had been put on hold (a Lady Chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary). Completed in 1349, the rectangular structure is the largest of its kind in the UK. The destruction of the Reformation is visible here, in the beheaded and defaced carvings.
It’s worth taking the Octagon Tower Tour, Not alone to get up close to the Lantern, but for access to the roof of the cathedral..
There are lovely green spaces between the Cathedral and the river…
We even finally meet an eel…….
Ely was actually built on an island in the Fens. Being separated from the mainland, the Great Ouse would have been of significant importance for transport until the Fens were drained in the 18th century. A report from 1753 describes a boat leaving Ely every Tuesday and Thursday, laden with passengers and heavy goods, for the 20 mile / six hour journey to Cambridge. Nowadays, it’s main purpose here is that of pleasure, being a popular boating spot with a large marina.
Some listed Maltings buildings along the river have been repurposed – the 1868 Brewery of one Ebenezer William Harlock now serves as a function venue and cinema. A bit further along, another Maltings has enjoyed many revivals – including acting as a morgue during WW2 – and now houses Waterside Antiques which boasts 10,000 sq ft and over 65 dealers.
Next to the Waterside, Babylon Gallery promotes local artists as well as regional and national exhibitions..
And when you’re finished your browsing through the artworks and antiques, there’s always Peacocks for a Cream Tea!
Oliver Cromwell was born into a junior branch of a wealthy Huntingdonshire family so, although he was a gentleman, he was not a rich one. His father died in 1617 and Cromwell left Cambridge to look after the estate, his widowed mother, his wife and their ever growing family. His financial fortune changed when he inherited leases on various properties in Ely from an uncle. He moved his family into one of the properties – a 13th century house – and lived there for 10 years before relocating to London.
This house is one of only two Cromwell homes still in existence (the other being Hampton Court). It is open to the public and visitors can follow an audio tour through the principal rooms. There is a Civil War Exhibition for history buffs while the dramatic among you can dress up in period costumes!
The house doubles as Ely Tourist Information Centre.
On a midweek February day, there was a smattering of day visitors about town – mostly, from what we could gather – from nearby Cambridge. Ely makes for a perfect day trip, taking in the Cathedral, a walk to the river, Oliver Cromwell’s House and a nice lunch. Being off season, it was very quiet at night but I’m sure there’s more of a buzz in summer – indeed, it would make for a great escape from the crowds in Cambridge.
Train: Stansted Airport > Ely (single) €16.73, incl booking fee
Train: Ely > Cambridge €3.77 / Cambridge > London Liverpool Street €14.72 (Total €18.49 incl booking fees)
Stansted Express: London Liverpool Street > Stansted £16
The Lamb Hotel
Double Room (room only) £99
Octagon Tower Tour £10
Note – This year, 2023, the cathedral is celebrating the 1350th anniversary of St. Etheldreda’s founding of her monastery with a year long series of events.
Oliver Cromwell House:
£6.50 (includes audio)