One thing people frequently recommend you (beside visiting the Cathedral) is a walk along the river and a pint at one of the pubs and restaurant. Of course, this is a fair weather activity, although some still do that in rain and snow, skipping the walk part of the recommendation. Usually, a couple of barges and canal boats are moored at the river, in summertime even short round trips are offered. The area between the two railway bridges is famous for restaurants and pubs, but there are still a couple of them beyond those points.
Jubilee Gardens were inaugurated by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh on the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002. The gardens are neatly kept and together with the park next to the cathedral, they form the green oasis of Ely. Jubilee Gardens and the riverside walk are popular places for local festivities. Of course, this is also the place where local artists have placed several sculptures. This include an eel in Jubilee Gardens as well as the Sluice, a sculpture which changes its light display according with the tidal level. The gardens can be accessed from the river as well as from broad street.
Like most mid-sized towns, also Ely has a local history museum. Similar to others of its kind, it starts from what the era looked like in prehistoric times to the post-war years. Although it has an old-fashioned appearance, it is one of the more interesting of its kind. The reason is the exceptional geographical location of Ely. Before the Fens were drained, it was an island. This led to some mentionable events, such as being one of the last Anglo-Saxon holdouts after the Norman Conquest. The Draining of the Fens were a period of change in the people's lifestyle which was adapted to the marches. This era is well documented in the museum, including items used for eel catching and some documentary clips. The exhibition about the first person to win a bicycle race was small, but caught my attention.
The museum is quite good for a local history museum and it is one I would like to recommend for people interested in the topics mentioned. However, if you have to pick only a single place to visit after the Cathedral, I would prefer Oliver Cromwell's house.
This attraction was unexpectedly excellent. I was just awaiting some displays of local history and a couple of facts about the time when Cromwell used to live in that house. However, it turned out to be a small, but good museum about the life of one of Britain's most controversial historical figures. All rooms on the first floor and some rooms on the ground floor form part of the exhibition. The rooms in the ground floor focus on the Cromwell family's everyday life in the time Oliver lived there. The upper room are about the man himself, its rise from a local MP to a “King in all but name”. A good amount of boards and showcases are highlight Cromwell's career, an audioguide is available for free in different languages. At the end, visitors are encouraged to think about Oliver Cromwell as historical figure and cast their vote for Cromwell as “Hero” or “Villain”. Sometimes the museum has a temporary exhibition. At the time of my visit they were showing a documentary film about the Draining of the fens.
The museum offers some activities for children (write like people in Cromwell's time, dress like a Puritan, etc.). However, the last room on the upper floor could not be suitable. It shows Oliver Cromwell with eyes closed on his deathbed and a ghostly projection on the left hand side. Some mannequins in the other rooms make movements, and in this spooky atmosphere I was expecting the dead Cromwell to open his eyes again. If you are easy to scare, go through this room quickly!
Although it does not seem to be an important attraction, I would definitively rate it as Ely's number two after the Cathedral. It's a place worth to visit, especially if you are interested in history.
P.S.: It is said that the house is still haunted by Oliver Cromwell – and that he appears in the mentioned room...
Ely Cathedral is the main sight of Ely. There was a monastery on its place as early as 673AD, but it was destroyed by the Danes in the late 9th century. In the late 11th century, Abbot Simeon arranged and supervised the building of a new church which became a bishop's see and thereby a cathedral in 1109. The cathedral didn't last long: In 1322, the crossing tower collapsed because of instabilities created by building the Lady Chapel. It was later rebuilt with an octogonal shape covered with 200 tonnes of wood and lead, the so-called lantern which is used to shed light on the interior of the cathedral. Another part of the cathedral collapsed in the Middle Ages, but was not rebuilt so that the building looks rather unsymmetric if you look at it from the front.
We did a tour of the West Tower which was very interesting. Not only will the guide tell you some facts about parts of the church, but from the top of the tower you will also be able to enjoy the marvellous view over Cambridgeshire and the Fens.
The entrance fee to the cathedral is not cheap: £6.50 for the general admission including a ground floor tour, £12 for the general admission and a tour of one of the towers, and £15.20 for the complete experience including the Stained Glass Museum inside the cathedral and a tour of one of the towers.
The Stained Glass Museum is located at one of the Southern Galleries in the Cathedral and can be visited without having to pay the entrance to the Cathedral. However, there are combo-tickets at the cathedral desk which include the Cathedral, the Stained Glass Museum and in some cases also a tour to one of the two towers.
The museum itself has a good collection of stained glass works. The oldest ones are from the 13th century, the newest ones are from the 20th. Beside medieval religious art, the focus is on Victorian stained glass windows. Each window is thoroughly explained. Leaflets in several languages are available. A part of the exhibition is dedicated to the making of stained glass windows and the different techniques. A corner for kids to play is available too, if parents want to have a closer look at the windows.
I would recommend the museum, although it is not a place I would travel all the way to Ely for. But if you are in the Cathedral, it’s worth to pay the extra money and have a look at this museum too.
A guided tour to the Octagon is available several times a day. This includes an introduction to the history of the Octagon, most of which you will known already if you have done the free Ground floor tour (for details about the ground floor of the Octagon, please see my tip about the Ground floor tour). The interesting part, however, comes when you have a look onto the Octagon itself. Through steps and narrow alleys you will be on the same level as the angels (which are, by the way, a Victorian addition). At this part of the tour, you will not only hear how the wooden lantern was built and lifted to this height. You will enjoy a breathtaking view into the Cathedral and you may even recognize the perspective from one or other historical movie (like Elizabeth – the Golden Age). If you have someone with you who is not joining you on the Octagon tour, make sure they will look up when you are visiting the wooden lantern. As the wooden panels with the Victorian angels can be opened like windows, you'll surely like to have a picture of yourself standing in one row with the angels. Climbing further upstairs, you will enjoy a view from the top of the Cathedral. On very clear days, you may have the chance to look as far as Cambridge. If you think that this is not enough or that the West Tower disturbs your view into that direction, climb that one.
Of all Cathedral tours in Ely – which are all extraordinarily good – this was the best one. There is a fee of 4,00 GBP for this tour (6,00 GBP on Sunday, prices as of 2011). Ask for combo-tickets, if you are interested in other places like the West Tower or the Stained Glass Museum. Children under ten are not admitted on tower tours. Please keep in mind that some alleys and stairs on the way up and down are very narrow. If you have problems moving through this kind of spaces, it may be that the tour is not suitable for you.
The West tower is the higher of the two remaining towers of Ely Cathedral. A similar looking East tower collapsed in the middle ages and was never rebuilt. Tours to the West Tower are especially recommendable on clear days which give you a 360 degree sight over the Fens, sometimes even as far as Cambridge. During your tour, you will hear some stories about the Cathedral itself as well as over the tower. This includes the one about the gothic structures which were built on top of the romanesque ones. On your way to the top, you will notice which additions were made in the 1300s. And also learn that their weight was the cause of the East Tower’s collapse. The guide also tells you about the surrounding buildings and the funnels built into some of the turrets. They were used to collect rainwater for brewing.
The tour is good and the guides know a lot of background stories about the cathedral. If you are short on time or money, however, I will opt for the Octagon tour instead, especially on less clear days. The view from the Octagon is not as fine as from the higher West Tower (particularly as letter is in the way). But the structure of the Octagon can’t compete with the West tower at all. West tower tours (as well as Octagon tours) are available separately or on combi-tickets from the main desk. A “Full Cathedral experience”, for example, includes the entrance fee, a ticket to the Stained Glass museum, one of the two tower tours and a free coffee or tea at the café.
There are several tours available in the cathedral and they are all worth their money. The ground floor tour is free (once you have paid the entrance fee for the cathedral itself) and takes place four times a day. Please check out the exact timetable as they very per season and day of the week. The most interesting parts are located in and around the Octagon. I will point out some of the most interesting features of the Ground floor in this tip:
Lady Chapel: Ely’s Lady Chapel is the largest of its kind in Britain and was built in the 14th century. However, its construction disturbed the flow of subterranean currents causing erosions close to the crossing. As a consequence, the norman tower collapsed which led to the construction of the Octagon. The Lady Chapel is a prime example of iconoclasm in the reformation period. You can still have a look at all the details from the Middle Ages, but all figures had their faces destroyed.
Prior’s door: On the southern side of the cathedral you will find a small chapel. You’ll soon notice that this was formerly part of the cloisters and that it was on the outside of the building for many years. Still, you can see some fine examples of Norman-romanesque stone carving. The most beautiful here is what it is called “Prior’s door”. The carvings include christ throned holding the book of seven heals and the doors and the twelve zodiac signs on the door frame.
Chapels in the north transept: In front of the chapel of St. George, you will find a couple of flags from former military units. The oldest of them was on the battlefields of Waterloo when Napoleon was defeated. This chapel is the official chapel of the Cambridgeshire regiment and is used to commemorate the victims of the two world wars.
In St. Edmund’s chapel you will find a medieval wall painting shwoing the martyrdom of St. Edmund.
Note the tomb of Bishop Thomas Goodrich in the south transept. He was responsible of having all figures of siants destroyed, including stained glass windows. The bishop himself has a bronze relief with his picture on his grave...
Octagon (ground floor): When the original central tower collapsed in 1322, it was decided to replace it with a completely new structure. That did not include only a stronger base design, which resulted in the octagonal shape. The people wanted to keep the daylight the way it is after the tower left a gap in the building. Therefore, the lantern was built, a huge oak structure which led daylight shine through different windows. Details about that incredible structure can be found in my tip about the Octagon. Among the details to be noticed at the ground floor of the Octagon are the niches. On the four walls, there were three small niches and two large ones on either side. This makes a total of 12 small and eight large niches. For Victorian restorators, it was easy to decide what to put into the 12 small ones: The twelve apostles. Our guide said, that no one knows what there was in the eight large ones. He said, that it must be written somewhere, but is kept as a dark secret. Whose statue was in those eight niches? Bishop Waleran Bigod? St. Michael O'Leary? Who knows...
Among England's Gothic Cathedrals, Ely's is one of the most beautiful. Although it does not have the majestic façade as Peterborough, the filigranity of Durham or the scissor-arch architecture of Wells, it has enough unique features to be worth a day trip.
The present building was begun in 1083. Most parts of the Cathedral show the Norman-Romanesque style, later additions from the 13th and 14th century Early English Gothic (especially the Lady Chapel). The most remarkable feature is the Octagon, a crossing tower which replaced a structure collapsed in 1322 during the construction of the Lady Chapel. It contains an oak wood lantern, unique in its kind, which makes the transept looking very bright. The other tower, the West tower, is the higher of the two. It was built in Norman times and enlarged in the 13th century. The Southwest transept does not only provide access to the Stained Glass Museum and the West Tower. It also shows the change from Romanesque to Gothic architecture (from the lower to the upper floors). A similar Northwestern structure collapsed in the Middle Ages. The cut can still be seen from outside.
Ely Cathedral is famous for being chosen a a filming spot in several movies. In many historic films, it takes the role of Westminster Abbey, the Royal palace or any other important building from the past. Some of the most recent movies include the two Elizabeth films, “The Other Boleyn Girl” or “The King's Speech”. If you want to be the star in your own handheld camera movie or just admire the beauty of the Cathedral, prepare to pay an entry fee of 6,00 GBP. A free ground floor tour of the Cathedral is available several times a day. Other tours include the West Tower and the Octagon (please see separate tips for that). There are combo-tickets which include the entry fee for the cathedral, a ticket for the stained glass museum and one of the two towers (the other one can bee booked with a separate ticket). Although these tickets are quite pricey too, they are worth its money. However, if you have to chose between one of the towers, take the Octagon.
BTW, all guides I had were very friendly and had excellent knowledge. The guided tours are more than worth its money - for more details about them, please check my other tips.
There are three separate tours of Ely Cathedral, plus the optional Stained Glass Museum.
The nave tour is free and the two tower tours have fees. If you can only choose to do one tower tour, then the Octagon is a better choice. The Octagon tour takes you up past the stained glass windows to the Lantern Tower and atop the roof. There are 165 steps to the top of the Octagon Tour, and the West Tower has over 200 steps.
From April to October the tower tours are daily and then from November to March are reduced to weekends. Tours are cancelled during rainy weather. It's a good idea to check the Cathedral tour schedule as soon as possible (after 7 a.m.) in order to book your desired tour time as there is a maximum of 12 people per tour. I suggest doing Ely Cathedral first anyway, as it's the only attraction open before 9 a.m.
At the Cambridge Visitor Information Centre, pick up the Ely Cathedral brochure with a sunset photo on front. Inside is a coupon good for one free brass rubbing next to the Cathedral gift shop!
As you approach Ely by train, the Cathedral rises above the city. However, when you start towards it, it vanishes for a time. You are actually better off continuing ahead when a roadsign would take you to the right.
This is a terrific building with a fine Norman nave and transepts.
The choir and chancel were built later in the Early English [Early Gothic] style but the central tower collapsed in the 14th century. It was replaced by the cathedral's unique feature, the octagonal lantern, a wonder of the Decorated [Middle Gothic] style.
The choir stalls are not, perhaps, as impressive as those at Ripon in Yorkshire but even so they are very fine as is the stained glass.
Oliver cromwell was born near Ely and lived there for a long time, before he went to London. Today, the tourist information is situated in the building and they offer tours by audio guide.
These tours are very well organised, basic information for those who are in a rush, and many additional details for those who want to know more about daily life in the 17th century.
The room I liked best was the kitchen, with very interesting information there. Cromwell's bedroom is supposed to be haunted, I'm sorry to say I didn't notice anything unusual.
At the end of Cromwell's rooms there is another room with lots of information material about life in the fens in former times. Don't miss this, it's really worth your time.
Entrance for adults was £4.50.
This year I had come by train and was walking up to the cathedral from the back side. It was still early in the morning and not many people were around, which made a very special atmosphere. Somehow the cathedral seemed to be more serene.
I saw a beautiful sun dial, but what I liked best were two very old gargoyles, to the right and the left of an old door. I could tell they must have been really old, as they were quite withered, but still their facial expression to scare away other evil spirits was recognizable.
Next to the eel - still without a T-shirt - I found a dry garden which I hadn't paid much attention to last time. I suppose I was too hard looking for the eel and I didn't notice it. Or maybe the garden is now bigger than two years ago, because the climate is changing? 50 years ago the idea of a dry garden in England would have been laughed at, I think.
It's just a small garden, but beautifully done, and of course something like an eel is finding its way through it. After all, I was in Ely!
OK I know Cathedrals need maintaining, but an admission fee of £5 per person is a bit steep for this Cathedral. We went in for free as it was Harvest Festival weekend and I'd have felt ripped off had I paid £5 to go into this place. There are plenty of more attractive Cathedrals in England which you are requested to give a donation, but quite frankly this place is cold and not terribly inspiring. The college chapels in Cambridge are far better. Apologies to all those who might have different opinions.