In Medieval times this Cambridgeshire town was on the Isle of Ely, a patch of high ground amid miles of watery fenland.
Slowly the impassable landscape was conquered using ditches and pumps that were powered by wind and then diesel engines.
The name Ely comes from eels, and for hundreds of years this creature was the backbone of the economy and diet.
There’s even a World Eel Throwing Competition at Ely’s gorgeous riverside in May.
Ely’s crowning glory is the cathedral, graced by a sublime 14th-century octagonal tower that has no equal in Medieval architecture.
In the 17th century Oliver Cromwell had a place in Ely, and this house has been kept in a style that the Lord Protector himself would recognise.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Ely:
1. Ely Cathedral
An intoxicating blend of Romanesque and Decorated Gothic Architecture, Ely’s inspiring cathedral was begun in 1080 and completed towards the end of the 14th century.
This monument owes its greatest feature to a catastrophe.
In 1322 while the magnificent Lady Chapel was being built, the Norman central crossing tower collapsed.
The replacement was something truly extraordinary: The Octagon is a hollow Decorated Gothic tower and a work of Medieval architectural genius.
There’s a lantern with eight internal archways supporting wonderfully light fan vaulting.
One of many head-spinning facts about this structure is that the timber structure supporting the Octagon could never be built today because there are no trees large enough! The Octagon is the essential sight, but also just the start of a journey that has to include the Lady Chapel, with spellbinding vaulting, window tracery and rows of highly decorative ogees with carvings depicting the life of Mary.
2. Oliver Cromwell’s House
One of the defining figures of English history, Oliver Cromwell, lived in Ely from 1638 to 1646. He came here after inheriting a 16th-century house, also known as St Mary’s Vicarage.
Apart from Hampton Court Palace, this is the only Cromwell residence still standing.
The oldest part of this half-timbered house dates right back to 1215. The property was bought by the council in 1988 and was restored to how it might have looked when Cromwell was living here.
There’s an audio-tour bringing those times back to life as you pass through eight evocative period rooms.
One of the bedrooms is claimed to be haunted, while children can take part in “House Mouse Trail” and dress up in clothes and armour from the period.
3. Stained Glass Museum
The UK’s only museum for stained glass can be found in the cathedral’s South Triforium Gallery.
This captivating exhibition maps the history of stained glass over 800 years, shedding light on the skills involved in its production.
You’ll discover the secrets and savoir-faire of this ancient craft and see how the techniques and styles changed.
Some 125 exquisite stained glass panels are kept in illuminated cases, allowing you to contrast styles across hundreds of years.
If you’re eager to learn this craft yourself there are workshops for various stages in the process like painting, fusing, leading, copper foiling and glass fusing.
4. Ely Museum
The building housing Ely Museum is part historic and part modern.
The older wing is a two-storey stone and brick construction that stood as the Bishop of Ely’s gaol in the 17th century.
The permanent exhibition is in nine galleries, with tableaux and artefacts charting the natural formation of the Fens, as well as their human history via the Bronze Age, Romans, Saxons, Victorian times and the two World Wars.
One of the newest additions is a mesmerising Bronze Age gold torque that was only discovered in the Cambridgeshire countryside in 2017 and is valued at £220,000. Another enthralling, if morbid, exhibit is a Roman sarcophagus with the skeleton of a legionary inside, discovered by a farmer ploughing his field in 1981. You can also investigate historic activities specific to Ely, like eel catching and hunting waterfowl with huge boat-mounted punt guns.
5. Ely Riverside
The loveliest place in Ely to amble aimlessly, the city’s Riverside on the Great Ouse has a long path by the water.
This is partly shaded by willows, and in summer an endless flow of narrowboats and pleasure yachts drifts past.
As we’ll see below, there’s an antiques centre and major arts venue on the waterfront, but also lots of places to drink, dine or grab a cup of tea and a treat and ponder the river.
Loads of events take place on the Riverside, like the water-based mayhem of the Ely Aquafest on the first Sunday of July.
More surreal is the World Eel Throwing Competition as part of Eel Day at the beginning of May.
You may be happy to learn than no eels are harmed at this event, as grown-ups and kids compete to throw a stuffed toy eel as far as they can.
6. Jubilee Gardens
A pretty way to get from the Riverside to the city centre, Jubilee Gardens opened in 2002 to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and has been awarded the Green Flag since 2005. Check out the striking sculpture of an eel by one of the benches.
This is one of a few installations around Ely to celebrate its traditional eel catching trade.
In the summer Jubilee Gardens springs to life with outdoor events like Sunday concerts at the bandstand.
The park also has a play area for toddlers, a curious water feature and a meandering path recreating the route taken between the Riverside and Cathedral by merchants in times past.
7. Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve
The 628-acre Ramsar Wetland at Wicken Fen is a rare chance to see what the region’s countryside looked like before it was drained and cultivated.
This invaluable natural space, one of the most important wetlands in Europe, is mostly owned by the National Trust and is a National Nature Reserve.
Out in Wicken Fen you can follow long or shorter trails, ushering you past standing water, reedbeds, marshes, farmland and pits, dikes and water courses made by human hands . The last remaining wind pump in all of the Fens can be seen here, built around 1912 and moved to this site in 1956. The natural diversity at Wicken Fen is astounding, with 8,500 species recorded.
Resident birds include great crested grebes, kingfishers, sparrowhawks and five owl species, while winter visitors include waders like golden plovers, snipes and bitterns, to name just a tiny fraction.
8. River Cruises
From the beginning of March to the end of September you visit the Riverside to board the Liberty Belle for a peaceful 30-minute cruise on the River Great Ouse.
These trips depart close to The Maltings, a Victorian-era brewhouse-turned-performing arts centre.
On your trip you’ll get a fresh angle of the cathedral and will be able to see lots of wildlife on riverbanks, There’s a pre-recorded commentary on board detailing the civil-engineering projects in the Fens and stories of 18th-century highwaymen.
Your skipper will also know Ely and the Fens like the back of his hand and will have lots of interesting facts and tales to tell.
9. Cherry Hill Park
Also known simply as Ely Park, this green space continues across Broad Street from Jubilee Gardens.
Here, among the giant mature trees there are unbroken views of the cathedral.
Keep an eye out for the reproduction of an eel hive (a tunnel-like implement to catch eels in the Fens). This is one of 18 stops on an Eel Trail that has been plotted by the town.
The park was the site of Ely Castle, raised by William the Conqueror in 1070 but demolished in 1268 after being captured from the rebels in the Second Barons’ War back when Ely was an island.
There’s little more than a mound remaining from the castle, but excavations in the 2000s brought to light all sorts of interesting artefacts like bowls, jugs and tools for hunting and farming from the time Ely was transitioning between a Viking and Norman settlement.
10. Waterside Antiques Centre
A dream for collectors and bargain-hunters, the Waterside Antiques Centre is the largest antiques emporium in East Anglia.
Inside this cavernous Georgian malthouse are more than 65 antiques dealers.
Their stock is highly diverse, and rummaging through the stalls you’ll find traditional farm tools, porcelain, silverware, historic weapons, ephemera like matchboxes and postcards, vintage clothing, military medals, antique glass and distinguished furnishings from grandfather clocks to armoires.
The building has its own story to tell, as it was used as a morgue in World War II and is believed to be haunted.
The centre is open seven days a week, 09:30-17:30 Mon-Sat and 11:00 on Sundays.
11. Ely Country Park
Out in the Fens to the east there’s a generous open space owned by the town.
The Ely Country Park is a handy way to hit the countryside without straying too far from Ely proper.
The park incorporates a Site of Special Scientific Interest and has two main waymarked trails (Kingfisher and Bulrush) with interpretation boards outlining the many bird species you may spot.
There’s a picnic area by the Fisherman’s Car Park, as well as an adventure playground for smaller members of the clan, with a zip-line and tricky climbing frame.
12. Burwell Museum
A bit more of a trip, this agricultural museum is about ten miles to the south and shines a light on the history of farming on the edge of the Fens.
Surrounding the Grade II* listed Steven’s Mill (1820) there’s an assortment of rural buildings, some of which are historic and have been relocated here, and others that have been built recently using traditional knowhow.
One of the older structures is a timber barn from the 1700s, and you can enter Steven’s Mill for interactive exhibits and multimedia.
The museum has a riveting collection of vintage buses, cars, motorcycles, carts, prams and farm machinery, as well as reconstructions of a historic blacksmith’s forge, Victorian schoolroom and a Roman potter’s workshop.
13. WWT Welney Wetland Centre
You can make another journey out into the Fens at this Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre north of the town in Welney.
This expansive reserve has five bird hides, the largest of which even has central heating, which is a godsend in winter.
In this season you can go on a guided visit to see the swans feeding.
Winter also delivers thousands of ducks and wading birds like there rarely sighted water rail.
Come in summer and you’ll get to see house martins and swallows with their young amid the meadows that are emblazoned with wildflowers.
The visitor centre has an uplifting view of this watery landscape, and has a cafe where you can pause for a moment with your coffee to watch the waterfowl in winter or hares boxing in early spring,
14. Prickwillow Engine Museum
Minutes outside Ely on the River Lark is a museum at a former pumping station, another way to get in touch with the history of the Fens and their reliance on human intervention.
Pumping stations like this and their awe-inspiring engines helped keep this landscape inhabitable.
The Prickwillow Engine Museum has an array of diesel pumping engines, all of which are in working condition.
The museum is open Saturday to Tuesday from Easter to the start of October.
You’ll be able to chat with an engineer who has worked on these beasts and see the machines in full flight.
There are also themed days throughout the season like the ploughing festival in October and the “1940s Event” in August.
To the south, Newmarket has been the home of British racing since the 17th century.
The largest set of racehorse training yards can be found around this town in west Suffolk, as well as the National Stud and two prestigious racecourses.
To give an indication of their importance, between them they host 9 of the UK’s 36 Group 1 races each year.
If you’re into equestrianism there are lots of reasons to make the trip, not least for the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and British Sporting Art.
This was opened by avid horseracing enthusiast Elizabeth II in 2016 and is housed in the surviving wing of Charles II’s Palace House.
Among this mine of artefacts are silks worn by world-famous jockeys like Lester Piggott and Frankie Dettori, alongside interactive displays that outline the physical characteristics of top equine athletes.