Many people who are doing the tourist circuit of England hit Cambridge, but most will leave without journeying the 17 or so miles to visit the hidden gem that is Ely, just to the North. It’s one stop I demanded be included on our Spring Cathedrals and Choirs tour for Big World (the travel company I run with a friend – we specialize in niche history tours). <plug>You should totally come on our tour. It’s going to be awesome!</plug>
So, besides the fact that I love it (which should be reason enough), why else would you want to make the journey and spend an extra day of your holiday going to Ely? Here are the 7 best reasons:
1) Ely gets its name from the eels that fishermen would catch in the marshy waters around this land, which was once an island in the middle of the swamp. It has an amazing cathedral, and for its small size, it packs a huge historical punch. Ely occupies the largest island in the Cambridgeshire Fens — the local name for marshland. The “Isle of Ely” is so called because it was only accessible by boat until the waterlogged Fens were drained in the 17th century.
2) Ely was founded in 673 AD by Saint Ethelreda, an Anglo-Saxon princess and remained solidly Anglo-Saxon until the Norman invasion in 1066 led by William the Conquerer. Today nothing survives of the original Anglo Saxon church…
3) but Ely is now dominated by the magnificent Norman Cathedral, a legacy left by William I. The invading Normans used their building skills to demonstrate their power over the local population. With its intricately carved stonework, Ely Cathedral took almost 300 years to complete. Today, more that 1,000 years later, it still towers over the surrounding low-lying fenland, one of the finest example of Romanesque architecture in the country …’The Ship of the Fens’.
5) Perhaps the most famous resident of Ely was The Lord Protector, the uncrowned King of Great Britain and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell. In 1636 Cromwell inherited a large estate in the area from his uncle Sir Thomas Steward. He became the local tax collector, a man of wealth and great standing within certain sectors of the community. Not perhaps the greatest admirer of the local (Catholic) clergy, he was responsible for closing the cathedral for approximately 10 years following a disagreement with them. He did however put the building to good use during this period, as stabling for his cavalry horses.
6) Due to its historic isolation, Ely has remained small. Visitors can explore the ancient buildings and medieval gateways, the Cathedral Close (the largest collection of domestic monastic buildings in the country) or Oliver Cromwell’s House, which is open all year round with exhibitions, period rooms and a haunted room.