Day 2. A day trip from Cambridge to Ely

We planned to spend the day in Ely which is one of the smallest cathedral cities in England.  Located just 15 miles from Cambridge, trains are frequent taking only 15 minutes with fares as low as £2.30 for an adult off-peak return.

The riverside, Ely

Ely’s imposing cathedral dominates the city’s skyline and it took us around 10 minutes to walk there from the railway station.  Our route took us along the riverside, through the Jubilee Gardens and onto the Dean’s Meadow from where we had some splendid views of the cathedral.  It is known locally as the ‘Ship of the Fens’ because of its prominent position above the surrounding flat landscape.

Ely Cathedral

We entered the cathedral through its Great West Door from where we had a view of the country’s third longest nave measuring 75 metres (246 feet).  Entrance to the cathedral is £9 or £16.50 to include an Octagon tower tour.  It is free to enter the cathedral on Sundays when a tower tour ticket costs £9.50.  More information can be found here.

The Nave, Ely Cathedral, looking back to the Great West Door

The cathedral originated in 672 when St. Etheldreda built an abbey church.  The present building dates back to 1083 and is built in Romanesque style.  Its construction is architecturally outstanding both for its size and stylistic details with its most notable feature being the central Octagon lantern tower which is 52m (171 ft) high and 23m (75 ft) wide.

The Octagon Lantern Tower, Ely Cathedral

We took the tower tour which lasted one hour.  Before starting our ascent, we were taken to sit beneath where the lantern hangs and gazing upwards it appears like a great star of light.  Our knowledgeable guide then explained about its construction and how it was a masterpiece in engineering of the medieval world.

A section of the stained glass window on the gallery level

We then began to climb the 170 steps to the top.  Firstly, there was a a stone spiral staircase to the gallery level above the aisles and this was where we left our bags for safekeeping before climbing up further.  From there, we took another spiral staircase out onto the roof of the transept where we had good views towards the river.

Views from the roof of the transept, Ely Cathedral

After walking along this section of roof we then had to bend down and squeeze through a low doorway which led to a slightly narrower spiral staircase up into the roof space surrounding the lantern.

View from the roof space surrounding the Octagon Lantern

Our guide opened some of the doors so that we could look all the way down to the church floor below. Each of the wooden panel walls of the lantern are beautifully painted with Victorian angels and we were able to gaze down through each of them giving us different views.

View from the roof of Ely Cathedral

A final staircase brought us out onto the lead roof around the lantern.  We couldn’t have wished for better weather as from this height we enjoyed far reaching views over the stone arches.  The lead roof is sloped with ridges but it is quite safe and easy to walk along.  After taking photos, we made our way back down to ground level and looked around the cathedral and its chapels before leaving.  It was a memorable tower tour and I would definitely recommend it, if you are visiting Ely.

The altar, Ely Cathedral

Leaving the cathedral we noticed an event taking place on the Palace Green and discovered we had arrived in Ely on the day of its annual Apple Festival.  We had never been to an apple festival before so we were intrigued to explore this free event and see what was happening.

Apple Festival, Palace Green, Ely

National Apple Day was launched in 1990 and is traditionally held on or around 21st October and Ely has been joining in with the celebrations since 2000.  Experts were on hand from the East of England Apple and Orchard Project to identify apples brought along, made easier if people had left part of the stalk and leaves attached. I wish I’d known about this as we have an old apple tree in our garden of an unknown variety.

Just a few of the many varieties at the Apple Festival

There were several competitions taking place including a contest for the longest apple peel which I was invited to participate in but I didn’t think it would go well so I politely declined.  There was also an apple and spoon race and an apple shy to raise money for the town’s Christmas lights.  The food stalls all had an emphasis on apples with such offerings as apple crepes and pork and apple sausages.  We couldn’t resist glasses of delicious hot cider which we sipped as we wandered around.

Children joining in with the Morris dancing at the Ely Apple Festival

In one corner there was some traditional Morris dancing which is a type of English folk dance performed in groups and usually accompanied by music.  The dancers wear matching costumes and have bell pads on their shins.  Sticks and handkerchiefs are integral parts of their routines and the dancers can occasionally be seen performing in market town squares and at various country festivals.

Oliver Cromwell House, Ely

Located near Palace Green stands the former home of Ely’s most famous historical resident Oliver Cromwell.  Cromwell lived with his family in Ely for ten years and this house is the only remaining home used by Cromwell with the exception of Hampton Court Palace in London.

The Kitchen, Oliver Cromwell House, Ely

Visiting Oliver Cromwell’s House costs £5 including an audio guide.  Our self guided tour began with a five minute video to set the scene and then we used our audio guides to tour the house which has been lovingly restored.  The rooms give visitors a sense of what domestic life would have been like in the 17th century as we explored each of the re-created period settings.  One section was dedicated to Cromwell’s role during the Civil War which we found particularly interesting.

Ely Museum

Continuing our tour of Ely’s attractions, our next stop was at Ely Museum (adult admission £4.50).  This small museum is housed in one of Ely’s oldest buildings dating from the 13th century.  Over the years it has served as a private dwelling, an inn, a registry office and the Bishop’s gaol.  Wandering around, it was evident that some of the building’s history remains including prison cells and some original walls.  The museum tells the story of the local history of Ely and the surrounding Fenland.

Period room layout in Ely Museum

It was interesting to discover that Ely takes its name from the Isle of Eels. This dates back to when Ely was an island surrounded by water and marshland. Eels were in abundance and we were able to take a look at some eel baskets which are a type of fish trap specifically designed to catch eels.  The eel shaped baskets were made from willow and were often strung together so that several could be caught at the same time.

Fire engine from Witcham at the Ely Museum

After leaving the museum we wandered through the bustling market and glanced in some of the attractive city centre shops on our way to the riverside.  Here we found many people enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, some having drinks on the outside terraces of pubs whilst others sauntered along the picturesque waterfront.

Liberty Belle River Cruise Boat at Ely Riverside

Boats depart from outside the Maltings for 30 minute trips along the River Ouse.  A board indicated that the next departure on the Liberty Belle would be 10 minutes later so we sat on a nearby bench until the small boat came into sight.

On board the Liberty Belle for our river cruise

Tickets cost £6 and Bob, the Captain was very friendly and welcomed people on board.  Before setting off, he gave a short introductory talk about the area, explaining how the Fens were drained and answering questions.

On board the Liberty Belle river cruise at Ely

Once under way there was an interesting recorded commentary about the city, it’s cathedral and famous inhabitants.  It was lovely to view the city from the perspective of the water and to watch ducks and geese paddling along.  We couldn’t have asked for better weather or for a nicer end to our lovely day out in Ely.  The compact city centre is easily walkable and makes for a very pleasant day out from neighbouring Cambridge.

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38 thoughts on “Day 2. A day trip from Cambridge to Ely

      1. Yes … Michael Portillo … it must have been a re-run of a re-run here in Australia but was the first time I had seen it … and so soon after reading about your day there …then it was featured on another of his journies but coming from Manchester and a lot more history about draining the marshes .. and on to the port where people sailed to Holland and Belgium … it meant so much more after your beautiful description

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Marvelous, Marion (without the comma as well). Family members from here in the U.S.A. visited Ely this summer in a choir performing at Evensong services in the cathedral. Your photos are terrific and writing insightful. Thanks to your bait, I found myself reading briefly about Cromwell, then Civil War, then the intriguing life of Charles II. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jasonlikestotravel

    A wonderful read, I’ve passed it so many times on the way to Stansted and Cambridge but never got around to actually spending any time there.This post has definitely given me more reason to visit, the cathedral was already on my list but good to see you had fun aside from that 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So much you’ve shared with us in this blog. The beauty of waterways and buildings was captured so well in picture, It was interesting to see mock ups of rooms as they would have been centuries ago. The fine artwork in the cathedral was beautiful. The old cart reminded me my ancestors from London side made carriages and wheeled vehicles and bought the trade with them to Australia. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your welcome thoughts concerning this post on Ely Ian. Everyone, or almost, has heard of Cambridge but not so many its delightful neighbour. Hopefully, this article may help to bring the city to the attention of more people and encourage them to view its wonders for themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Marion, I didn’t realise Ely had quite so much to see and do, so I think we’ll put it on the list for next year’s holidays. Your description of the tower tour left me feeling uneasy though – I’m scared of heights! But ground-level I’m sure we could manage!
    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Now, here, finally, your endless itinerary and my long-ago one coincide. Yes, I saw a bit of Cambridge 45 years ago, but you made more of it than I did, for which I thank you. Ely, though — I’m delighted to have your tour of the Lantern. I looked up at it, but didn’t see it the way you did. Thank you. Nor did I know that Cromwell was a local boy. I regret I didn’t have the opportunity to venture out onto the waterways of the fens, and I’m pleased to see them now. You’re an indominable traveller — or, in American, traveler. Carry on.

    Liked by 1 person

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