diamond geezer

 Monday, October 22, 2012

Day out: Ely
It's about fifteen miles north of Cambridge. It's just over an hour by train from London. It's a city, one of the three smallest in England. It's named after a slippery fish. I met my Dad there for a birthday rendezvous on Saturday. And it's not a bad place for a day out.

Ely Cathedral: You can see this 12th Century masterpiece from miles away. It was built on a hilltop, or what passes for a hilltop round here, which earned it the nickname "The Ship of The Fens". The nave is one of the longest in England, and the Lady Chapel one of the largest. Throw in an octagonal Lantern, built as a replacement for the Norman Tower following its untimely collapse, and there's no mistaking the cathedral's silhouette on the flat horizon. Alas Ely is also famous for being the first UK cathedral to impose an admission charge, at prices that have escalated since - currently £7 to get in and £16.20 for the full works. That does include a tour, a trip up a couple of towers and a look round the Stained Glass Museum, but my Dad and I both agreed we wouldn't be paying up to go inside. Had we arrived on Sunday (top tip) then general admission would have been free, but instead we made the most of admiring the ornate exterior. There are particularly good views across the Dean's Meadow.

Ely Eel Trail: Ely wouldn't be Ely without eels. There wasn't much other industry hereabouts before the fens were drained, and the townsfolk made a living catching, selling and smoking these abundant creatures. Even the stone for the cathedral was paid for in eels (8000 a year, to the Bishop of Peterborough, in perpetuity). Not surprisingly the city makes much of its eel-related past, including several sculptures and works of art dotted around the town. You can track these down by following the Eel Trail, a two mile stroll which also passes all of Ely's other interesting attractions. It's marked in the pavement by dozens of small copper plaques, which is a nice idea but utterly impractical for following without getting hopelessly lost. Instead you'll need a leaflet from the Tourist Information Centre, only 50p, and surely the best way to explore Ely without missing anything.

Oliver Cromwell's House: The commoner who destroyed the monarchy lived in Ely. Oliver Cromwell moved his family here from Huntingdon in 1636 after inheriting a large estate, and became an increasingly important member of the local community. That family home still stands, and has become both the city's Tourist Information Centre and a small museum. It's worth a look round, for a small fee, to see the surroundings which inspired revolution. A short film kicks things off, then there's an audio guide to lead you through a handful of rooms downstairs and up. You won't be surprised to hear that Eel Pie is being prepared in the kitchen, allegedly one of Elizabeth Cromwell's favourite recipes. Most of the other rooms are filled with information and artefacts and re-creations, including animated mannequins whose mechanical innards are just a little too audible. That includes Oliver's sleeping body in the final chamber, which has been dressed up as 'The Haunted Bedroom' despite the fact that Cromwell died many miles away in Whitehall. And was he hero or villain? The museum attempts to stay equivocal on the subject, then asks visitors to vote before they leave.

Ely Museum: It used to be the city jail, with its own peculiar ecclesiastical take on the law. It's also very old, with parts of the building dating back to the 13th century, and scratched graffiti from several very old prisoners evident on the walls. Now it's the local museum, with exhibits ranging from Roman remains to (obviously) the history of eel fishing. On view is the velocipede ridden to victory in the world's first recorded bicycle race, and also a model of Ely Cathedral made out of thousands of matches. It's that sort of place, and the kind of repository every small community needs.

High Street/Market Street: Ely's not been taken over by clone stores and chains, and retains a variety of independent stores and eateries. Twice a week the market comes to town, on Saturday a pleasing mix of aspirational and down-to-earth.

Riverside: At the foot of the hill, below the town, the River Great Ouse rolls by. It's broad and slow, with extensive water meadows beyond, and plied by a substantial number of boats of all sizes. The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race was rowed here in 1944, the only time in the race's history that it's taken place away from the River Thames. Now it's Ely's artistic quarter, combining an art gallery, an entertainment centre and a former maltings now home to dozens of antiques dealers. There are geese and ducks and swans everywhere, which adds to the charm, plus an award-winning tearoom that has queues out of the door even on a grey October day. And watch out too for the eel sculpture, the eel mosaic, the eel forks and the eel etchings. Just don't expect to spot any of the slippery creatures wriggling in the water, not any more.

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» Ely miniguide (pdf)

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