Ely in Cambridgeshire is a must-see if you are taking a tour around East Anglia. It also makes a good day trip from London or from Cambridge. Visit for the Cathedral, historic buildings and riverside location. And the eels! Here’s how to spend a day in Ely, England’s second smallest city.
The Historic Isle Of Ely
Ely is the largest “island” in the Cambridgeshire Fens. Still known as the “Isle of Ely” it was once literally an island, a small hill surrounded by waterlogged fenland, and accessible only by boat. The history of the city goes back to 673 CE when an Anglo Saxon princess established a monastery on the island.
Ely was later the home of the folk hero Hereward the Wake, who led the Anglo Saxon resistance to the Norman invasion of 1066. However, his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful and nothing now remains of the Saxon town.
A Medieval City
Today Ely is dominated by its Norman cathedral. Because the surrounding land is so low-lying, the cathedral can be seen from miles away, earning it the title of “Ship of the Fens”.
Although the Cathedral is the major sight, the city has other attractions for tourists. These include the one-time home of Ely’s most famous former resident – Oliver Cromwell. There are also old streets lined with medieval buildings and museums. And the town’s situation on the River Great Ouse gives it an attractive waterside area, with boats, cafés and galleries.
How To Spend A Day In Ely
A good way to start your day in Ely is by following the Eel Trail around the town. This is marked by bronze eels set into the pavement and includes a number of specially created sculptures and artworks.
The Trail will take you through the old streets and the market place, passing historic buildings and medieval gateways. You will walk through the Cathedral grounds and on to the waterfront and the Riverside Walk. Then you return via the Castle Mound, where a Norman castle once stood.
The Cathedral stands on the site of the former Saxon monastery. Although construction began in 970, what you see today is Norman, built over four centuries. It is notable for its size: Ely is the second smallest city in England but its cathedral is comparable to those serving much larger populations.
The interior is more impressive than the outside. The most famous feature is the 14th century Octagon Tower, a splendid construction of stone arches, oak beams and stained glass. You can take a tour of the Tower for views of the nave with its Gothic columns and painted panels.
The Cathedral also houses a Museum of Stained Glass. The only one of its kind in the country, it has collections from Europe and the US and well as British glass.
Shopping And Eating In Ely
Ely may be small, but there is no shortage of places to eat and drink. Take your choice from upmarket restaurants, cafés and tearooms to traditional pubs. Many of these are around the Cathedral and High Street area but you will also find some cafés and bars along the waterfront.
If shopping is your thing, you will enjoy the many independent shops. There are regular markets, including a craft market and a farmers’ market. And the well-stocked Waterside Antiques centre is the largest antiques centre in East Anglia.
What About The Eels?
As you walk around the city you will notice frequent references to eels. Historically Ely was the Isle of Eels, as the surrounding marshland was full of the fish, providing an abundant source of food. You will still find locally caught eels on restaurant menus in Ely, and there is even an annual Eel Festival Weekend.
How To Get To Ely
It is easy to get to Ely by car or train. It is 27 km from Cambridge, 94 km from Norwich and 128 km from London. The journey by train is 20 minutes from Cambridge, 1 hour from Norwich and just over an hour from London Kings Cross.
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