No matter how many times we visit, my first glimpse of Ely, a cathedral city in Cambridgeshire, always takes my breath away. The spire and towers of Ely Cathedral, nicknamed “The Ship of The Fens”, rise up over the land surrounding this ancient city, a landmark on the horizon for 900 years.
Ely was an island until 400 years ago, when the Fens, or wetlands, were drained. It was originally known as The Isle of Eels, due to the eels that were fished in the waters surrounding the island. So famous were the eels of Ely that people came from miles around to sample them. Although no longer fished commercially due to dwindling stocks, there is still an annual Ely Eel Festival. You will notice eel motifs everywhere in the art and architecture of the city.
An hour by train from Kings Cross station, Ely is an easy day trip from London. From nearby Cambridge, you are 15 minutes by train or between 45 and 60 minutes by car. We normally travel by car from our home in Berkshire to visit our son and his partner who live there.
While it may have one of the largest cathedrals, Ely is England’s second smallest city. However, there is plenty to do, from exploring quaint and quirky shops, to visiting historic sites and walking. There are also some rather wonderful places to eat.
Ely is located in farming country, part of the ‘breadbasket’ of England. Potatoes, grain crops, carrots and sugar beets are all grown in the fields surrounding the city. The black soil is rich and peaty, almost visibly fertile. Most of the local restaurants take full advantage of this abundance, using the fresh food grown locally on their seasonal menus.
Things To Do In Ely
Visit Ely Cathedral
My first stop on any wander into Ely is the cathedral. It is awesome in the true sense of the word. Stepping through the massive doors, your eyes struggle to adjust to the light glittering through what seems like thousands of panes of stained glass. The sheer scale of the building is almost overwhelming.
I remember being surprised by just how big the cathedral is – 537 feet (about 164 metres) long! If you are feeling energetic you can climb to the top of The West Tower. At 215 feet (66 metres) high, it affords spectacular view over the surrounding landscape.
The Lady Chapel is a true example of wabi sabi, or beauty in imperfection. Originally the chapel would have been full of colour with painted statues and incredible stained glass. Today, the ravages of time and visible evidence of the destruction of the 16th century Reformation have faded the colours and tarnished its appearance, but the peace and sense of awe in this space is profound.
If the cathedral seems familiar, you may indeed have seen it before. It has been used as a location for many films and television programs, including The Golden Age, The Other Boleyn Girl, Macbeth, The King’s Speech and The Crown.
Be sure to visit the Stained Glass Museum in the Cathedral which features over 125 original stained glass windows from across the UK and Europe.
If touring the cathedral has made you hungry, enjoy a cup of tea or a bite to eat in The Almonry Restaurant and Tea Room, located in the 13th century undercroft. You can dine under the medieval vaulted ceiling or in the grounds of the cathedral if the weather is fine.
Explore The Shops
In addition to a range of the kind of stores you would expect on any High Street, there are some wonderful shops to discover in Ely. Craft and antique stores, little galleries and more are in plentiful supply.
The Eel Catcher’s Daughter is a treasure-trove of unique housewares, accessories and gifts all housed in a historic 16th century building. I could spend hours browsing in this friendly shop.
Love books? You will adore Topping & Company Booksellers. Spread over three floors in a quaint building on the High Street it is just a couple minutes walk from the cathedral.
Friendly, knowledgeable staff are on hand to help. However, if you just want to lose yourself in this wealth of literature, thats perfectly fine too. Many of their books feature laminated covers and/or are signed by the author. There are also lots of signed first editions at every price point, including some rare volumes.
Also, don’t miss the Ely Market. Offering 3 main markets a week on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday plus twice monthly farmer’s markets and Mini Markets Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, there are stalls of all descriptions with local traders and farmers as well as those from further afield.
Step Back In Time At Oliver Cromwell’s House
Oliver Cromwell lived in a house on St Mary’s Street with his wife and family for a decade from 1636. You can step back in time on an audio tour of the house, which is furnished much as it would have been in Cromwell’s day. There’s also a Civil War Exhibition for history buffs.
Cromwell’s House now hosts ‘escape room’ events. You will find Ely’s tourist information centre here as well.
Down By The River in Ely
Walk along the beautiful banks of the River Ouse or hop on a boat cruise. There are several pubs down by the river – The Cutter is my favourite – perfect for a drink or delicious lunch. Or treat yourself to afternoon tea at Peacocks Tea Room.
If you are feeling energetic you can walk all or part of the route along the River Ouse and the River Cam from Ely to Cambridge. If you do go all the way to Cambridge, you may need to take the train back as the route is 18 miles (29 km) in total!
Ely Fudge Company – Run by a mother and daughter team, Ely Fudge Company offer fresh fudge in a multitude of flavours made and packaged right before your eyes. I received some of their fudge for Christmas and it was a very welcome gift!
For fabulous gelato and sorbet in ever changing seasonal flavours, visit Hadi’s Gelato, just 100 yards from the cathedral. We treated ourselves one hot summer’s day and it was one of the best ice cream cones I have ever had.
Silver Oak Coffee – This specialist coffee micro roastery works with green bean suppliers who deal directly with the coffee bean farmers. My current favourite is the Githongo Factory Washed Kenya – a single origin coffee with flavours of blackcurrant and molasses.
Silver Oak Bagel Bar – A project of Silver Oak Coffee, the bagels here are the stuff of legend. Be prepared to queue!
Tom’s Cakes – For delicious toasties (toasted or grilled sandwiches) and amazing cakes be sure to visit Tom’s Cakes on on the High Street. Everything is homemade in their Cambridgeshire bakery using seasonal ingredients. Current favourites include their Red Velvet Cupcakes, Coffee and Walnut Cake, and their dairy and gluten-free Orange, Polenta and Olive Oil Cake.
More Places To Eat in Ely
Old Fire Engine House –The Old Fire Engine House offers a unique dining experience. With tables in several rooms across the ground floor of this beautiful three storey Georgian house, one feels more at home than in a restaurant. We even walked through the edge of the kitchen on our way to our table.
This is British home cooking at its best. I enjoyed a starter of melon and tangerine with Madeira, followed by slow cooked beef with shallots. Duck in blackberry sauce and chicken and ham in tarragon sauce also featured on the menu. A generous selection of side dishes were served for the table to share. Before the plates were cleared we were offered complimentary seconds of the main course! The desserts – including a traditional trifle and Cambridge Cream – were delicious too.
The service was just the right blend of helpful, efficient, and efficient. The wine list is extensive and offers options at all price points.
Most of the paintings and art hung on the walls of The Old Fire Engine House are for sale. There is also an art gallery upstairs which is well worth a visit.
Poets House Hotel and Restaurant – Formerly the home of a local writer, this unpretentious but elegant venue is popular with locals and visitors alike. There’s a good selection of delicious seasonal dishes on the menu and service is friendly and efficient.
Attention to detail really makes this restaurant. On our most recent visit, the Parma ham and melon starter were rolled together and presented like a flower with a lovely ginger and blackberry vinaigrette alongside. It was definitely insta-worthy! The desserts are gorgeous. I have been told they do a very good afternoon tea as well.
Ely truly does have something for everyone. This quaint Cambridgeshire village and its surrounds are well worth a visit, and I look forward to spending more time here. It can get busy, particularly in the summer months, so be sure to book accommodation and restaurants in advance if you can.