My trip to Ely was, I have to admit, not as well-planned as writing about it has been. My eager suggestion of a day-trip there was based off the fact that I go through the station every time I get the train home from Cambridge, a desire to be a tourist wandering through a city freely instead of a stressed student trapped in one, and a vague memory of reading Tom’s Midnight Garden during primary school. It might be much smaller than your average city – it really felt more like a town to me – but it turned out to be full of history and beautiful buildings, and plenty of things to do.
The train ticket is only an £8.80 (or discounted £5.80) return, and the journey is between 15 and 20 minutes from Cambridge to Ely Station. From the station, you’ll need to walk a short distance past the supermarket and through the scenic Cherry Hill Park, where you’ll spot the Cathedral from a distance, take a few photos for Instagram and breathe in the fresh air. It’s the first good spot for a picnic. It won’t be the last.
Pass Ely Castle Mound (the remains of a castle which was destroyed in 1216), wander out of the park and up the road a little further, passing through a gorgeous archway – the Ely Porta, which was once the main entrance to the monastery founded in the 7th century. Try not to be overwhelmed by the hundreds and thousands of people – travellers, pilgrims, monarchs and tourists – who have passed through here in the centuries before you.
In Ely Cathedral, soak in the calm and the beauty of the architecture and the painted ceiling. It was given Cathedral status in 1109, having been previously a the site of a monastic Church founded by St Etheldreda, an East Anglian princess from 600 AD (read her fascinating story on the train journey there). Why a Cathedral in such a small town, you ask? The settlement was built around the Cathedral, rather than the Cathedral being built for the settlers. And it still gets around 250,000 visitors a year!
Visit the Stained Glass Museum if it interests you, or splash out on a guided tour of the Cathedral Tower (288 steps to the top). Or skip both and just feel the stifling student life slip away in its quiet corners before you remerge into the bright light of day. The green space opposite the Cathedral is another nice spot for a picnic, if it’s a sunny day and you’re so inclined.
If you want to see the Ely Market, which is usually on the street just beside the Cathedral, you’ll need to go on specific days – go on the 2nd or 4th Saturday of the month for the famous Ely Farmers Market (including ‘vegan alley’), the Craft and Collectibles market every Saturday, or see the General Market every Thursday and Sunday. Keep an eye on their website, too, for special events (a Christmas market in December, or various themed fairs throughout the year on bank holidays).
If you miss the market, no matter – wander down the high street anyway, go window shopping in the clothes shops, or seek shelter in one of the many, many cafés and teashops. Treat yourself to a coffee or something sweet. Sit in the window seat and watch the world go by in a steady trickle instead of a rushing stream.
Later, you could take a short walk to Oliver Cromwell’s house, which has now been restored and serves as a small tourist centre now, with souvenirs (and WiFi). Sometimes they even host special events, like folk festivals and flower festivals and historical re-enactments. Alternatively, if your thirst for knowledge is still not quenched, step into the 13th century gaol which is now the Ely Museum, also not far at all from the town centre.
When you’re ready to head home, walk back through the Cherry Hill Park. This time take the path opposite it, through the Jubilee Gardens, and down to the edge of the Great Ouse River. Wander along the riverside, let your gaze pass over the colourful boats lined up on the still water, and pass under the trees as you slowly meet the road once more.
Take the train home, and return to busy, bustling Cambridge safe in the knowledge that life does not always have to be so fast-paced.
This article was originally published for Varsity, here.