A matchbox-sized city with a big community vibe, Ely is the unsung gem of Cambridgeshire, with its showstopping cathedral, buzzing arts scene and laid-back river life. It’s only 15 minutes by train from Cambridge, yet far too few people make the trip here. Oliver Cromwell loved the city so much that he made it his home for more than a decade.
The story behind the city’s name is simple: when it was established on the Isle of Ely, the surrounding waters were writhing with eels, which were caught, sold and consumed in their thousands. Today, the river no longer wriggles with eels, at least not in the numbers that once thrived here, and the last commercial eel catcher hung up his traps in 2016. Nonetheless, the city stays true to its roots by celebrating ‘all things eel’ during the annual Eel Fayre.
What to see and do
With its 215ft tower visible for tens of miles across the Fens, Ely Cathedral – the ‘Ship of the Fens’ – is an iconic Cambridgeshire landmark and, up close, it’s even more magnificent. When you’re standing in the cathedral grounds it’s the intricacy of the stonework that strikes you – the cathedral’s vast, ornate façade will give you both neck cramp and eye strain as you try, in vain, to take it all in.
Once you’ve marvelled at the exterior, step through the Great West Door and Gothic Galilee Porch, and it’s the 245ft-long nave that first catches your breath, with its painted ceiling depicting the ancestry of Jesus. Beneath your feet are the patterned tiles of a Victorian labyrinth – follow its path and you’ll walk the same distance as the height of the West Tower, which rises above you. This is as far as you can get without paying the entrance fee, which is too steep for a quick nosey around.
To make the fee worthwhile, set aside at least half a day and take advantage of one of the inclusive hour-long guided tours. If you’d prefer to self-guide, the Ely Cathedral app has a choice of trails, including one for children. Your ticket gives all-day access, so you can always take a break for lunch and come back for more – not a bad idea, as there’s a colossal amount to digest here. It also pays to give yourself a head start with a bit of background into the history that hangs this epic piece of architecture together.
Outside, there’s more to discover. Home to England’s largest cluster of continuously inhabited monastic buildings, the grounds include the Prior’s House, the roofless 12th-century Infirmary and Prior Crauden’s 14th-century chapel – you can ask at the cathedral’s main desk for access to the last, which harbours wall paintings and the remains of a medieval tiled floor. To learn more about the cathedral grounds, ask for a map of the Monastic Trail or find it on the Ely Cathedral app.
Oliver Cromwell’s house
Doubling up as a tourist information centre and museum, this half-timbered building was once the home of Oliver Cromwell and his family, who moved to Ely in 1636 and stayed for ten years. Two of Cromwell’s nine children were born in this house and the youngest was baptised in St Mary’s Church, which you can see through the kitchen window.
Giving an immersive introduction to Cromwell’s life, the museum guides you through his story, from local MP to Lord Protector of the Commonwealth – King of England in all but name. As you progress through each room, kitted out with an audio guide, you’ll learn about Cromwell’s early life, how his family lived and what they cooked in the kitchen (note the recipe for Mrs Cromwell’s eel pie). Upstairs, kids can experience 17th-century Puritan life by trying on costumes and learning about medical treatments like leeches and unicorn horns. The last two rooms delve into the Civil War and track Cromwell’s rise through the ranks.
Before the Fens were drained, the Isle of Ely was cut off from the mainland and ruled by a bishop who had the power to summon an army and lock up lawbreakers. The Bishop’s Prison, the Old Gaol, is now Ely Museum, which first opened in 1997. Between 2019 and 2021 it underwent a major renovation which transformed it into one of the most impressive local history museums I’ve seen anywhere. Alongside the exhibits, the fabric of the old building has been cleverly preserved, with an original fireplace and Tudor doorway, and prisoners’ names carved into sections of the old walls.
Roughly set out in chronological order, the exhibits start with the Fens’ earliest settlers and continue to Roman-era artefacts, which include fragments of Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware and a skeleton unearthed in the Fens. You can also learn about the history of Ely Cathedral and the story of the Littleport riots, while children can listen to folk stories in the video room. A timeline of fenland drainage is printed on the walls, and the museum’s second floor includes displays about prison life, contemporary fenland farming and more.
Central Ely has two distinct areas: the city centre and the riverside. To explore both on foot, join one of the tourist information centre’s guided weekend walks. If you’d prefer to simply wander, you’ll find the Market Square and most of Ely’s shops and restaurants on the north side of the cathedral. Downhill of Market Square, the riverside is busy with boat life and has an arts centre, plus a handful of places to eat and drink. From here, you could take a boat trip with Liberty Belle, who offer regular half-hour tours (13.00–17.00 daily) – there’s no need to book, just turn up on the quayside near Waterside Antiques or The Maltings.