A great place to visit has, discovers Alex Ruczaj, got even better recently
With the majestic cathedral to explore, beautiful tea rooms to enjoy and plenty of shops to potter in, Ely has always been a great place to go, but it's becoming an even more compelling destination.
This cosmopolitan little city boasts award-winning food and craft markets, a micro-pub and a floating boutique hotel. Sounds more like East London than East Anglia!
Now's the perfect time to get back on that train and discover the best of Ely, both old and new.
Food & drink
For a small city, with a population of around 20,000, Ely has an abundance of eateries and pubs, including many relative newcomers.
Old favourites are The Cutter, great for a drink and snack by the river, and The Royal Standard and Prince Albert, both now offering quality gastro-pub food, but for something completely different try the multi-award winning Drayman’s Son Micro-Pub. Formerly the Liberty Belle, the pub was taken over by Andy and Jo Pearson in 2015. Passionate about Ely, the Pearsons offer mainly local products. Chose from over 40 ciders, a range of micro-brewed beers and ales, many of which are local, as well as vodka and gin from the Ely Gin Company. If you fancy a nibble along with your pint, take your pick of fantastic pork pies, cheese and meat platters, and no less than nine different types of pickled egg!
This image: Peacocks tearoom
If you’re in the mood for something more substantial, head to a long-standing Ely favourite – The Old Fire Engine House, serving locally-sourced Fenland fare since 1968. “Our restaurant is more like a private house, with much of my grandparents’ furniture dotted around,” explains Lucy Jarman, whose family run the business. “When people come here we want them to feel at home. They can eat their fill of comfort food, and then stay and relax, as if they were at home.”
The Old Fire Engine House is unique, quirky and warm, like many of the best places in Ely, including the world-famous Peacocks Tearoom. Winner of the prestigious Tea Guild’s Award of Excellence, Peacocks even offers a tea menu, with brews named for famous tea drinkers, like Mrs Hudson, a delicious accompaniment to their incredible cream tea.
With queues at Peacocks often down the street, you might want to consider Samovar Tea House. Offering an equally impressive tea menu, as well as lovely coffee, Samovar is also a good choice for vegetarians. Whether you head to Peacocks or Samovar, you can be sure of home-cooked food and delicious cake.
This image: cake heaven at Samovar
Where to visit
All of Ely is within easy walking distance, and you can use the Eel Trail that loops the city to tour around it. As Tracey Harding of Visit Ely says, “Ely is such a compact city. I always think it is fantastic that you can do the shops, the market, have food down by the river, see the wide-open spaces, enjoy the architecture and the cathedral, all in a day.”
The Cathedral is as good a place as any to start, however, and as you get closer to the Ship of the Fens, as it’s known locally, you may well stumble over many tourists trying to get the right angle as they photograph the majestic 215ft West Tower, which is rumoured to lean slightly.
Impressive as it is from the outside, the inside of the building is stunning and is well worth the entry fee, if only to see the intricately decorated, vaulted ceiling of the octagonal tower.
For art lovers, Ely has much to offer too, not least from the brilliant Babylon Arts, a gallery, performance space and arts cinema, in the riverside area. The gallery space hosts plenty of interesting exhibitions and events, including a forthcoming David Hockney exhibition opening on 23 June.
To combine shopping with culture, why not head to the wonderful Toppings & Company Booksellers? A bookworm’s dream shop, Toppings has three floors full of beautiful books, and it regularly hosts author talks – watch out for Mark Billingham and new author Mark Hill on 19 June. This Image: inside the cathedral
This image: a friendly welcome awaits at Toppings & Company booksellers
Festivals and markets
Ely folk have had a market since 1216, and suffice to say, they have it down to a fine art. On a Thursday the market is dedicated to street food, artisan bread and cakes, fruit and veg, and everyday items. On Saturdays, it’s the turn of Craft & Collectables Markets, with a fantastic range of arts, crafts, vintage ware, bric-a-brac, books and retro artefacts, as well as a dedicated street food aisle with tasty treats from as far afield as Thailand and Mexico.
Farmers Markets run on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month and are jam-packed with produce and delectables. If you needed further persuading that the markets are worth a visit, last year Ely Markets were runners-up in the national Observer Food Monthly Awards. Be sure to sample the scrumptious cakes from George’s Bakery, which serves up intriguing bakes such as maple syrup and bacon sponge, scotch egg quiche or the lovely sounding gooseberry, elderflower and sparkling wine cake.
For such a small city, Ely also has an impressively busy and diverse line-up of festivals to enjoy. There’s the famous Eel Festival, complete with eel-throwing competitions, parades and wonderful food stalls, held on spring bank holiday every year, or check out the Science Festival at the Cathedral, which runs until 18 June and this year includes an exhibition entitled From Dinosaurs to DNA.
The Isle of Ely Arts Festival is also running from 10 June to 15 July. Linking with the Science Festival and Babylon Arts, the festival’s theme this year is ‘The Fens’, celebrated with concerts, exhibitions, film and performances. To find out more about all events and festivals, visit www.visitely.org
Where to stay
A former Dutch cargo barge, this 100-year-old, renovated barge is now a beautiful floating hotel in the centre of Ely. Ideal for groups or couples, it has five rooms/cabins.
Prices from £100 for double occupancy.
A tasteful boutique hotel, set in a Grade III listed building, former house of a local author. The hotel has 21 suites, a stunning bar and restaurant that are both open to non-residents. The fluffy bathrobes and freestanding copper baths are fabulous! Prices from £160 for a double room.
The Old Hall
If you want the country hotel experience, just outside of Ely is The Old Hall, near the village of Stuntney. The Old Hall is a recently renovated Jacobean manor house set in its own historic estate of 3000 acres. Many rooms have views of Ely Cathedral, and all come with luxurious Egyptian cotton sheets. Double rooms from £145.