Afternoon of Adventures: a few hours out of the bubble…

Betony Lloyd 15 November 2007

There comes a time for most Cambridge students when, as much as we love it really, we wish we weren’t here. For some a quick trip home for the weekend is enough to rejuvenate and refresh, ready for more all-nighters, essay crises and hangovers from hell. For some, however, home is too far away to be a realistic short-break, and with this in mind I set about exploring alternatives.

London is always a possibility. With regular trains and a one day return ticket for just £8.90 (with a travelcard) it’s definitely easy to get to. But the hustle and bustle is not for everyone, and can often be as stressful as Cambridge. So, where to go for a peaceful break that won’t break the bank? The answer may well lie 15 minutes North of Cambridge in the Cathedral city of Ely.

In some ways Ely is very similar to Cambridge – it is a picturesque fenland city steeped in history and beautiful architecture – yet it is made all the more charming by its lack of students, tour buses and hordes of bicycles. Stepping off the train I felt a little more in the real world, being immediately confronted by a Tescos (ok no Waitrose but this is the fens not the Home Counties). Having no plan in mind I meander towards the cathedral, visible above the buildings, yet I’m diverted by a signpost promising a waterfront, so head off down a lane lined with cottages and populated, it seems, solely by ducks. The Quai D’Orsay (named after the twinning of East Cambridgeshire with D’orsay in France) proves to be charming with the ‘Cutler Inn’ and ‘The Boathouse’ offering ample waterside seating for peaceful beer consumption. Not wanting to return home with only a beer review, however, I pressed on along the riverbank.

My escapism was briefly interrupted by a familiar red and white crest on a suspiciously blue boathouse. Sure enough my ‘inner-boatie’ had led me to the CUBC’s home away from home, where they train before the big race. In fact, the Varsity Boat Race was actually hosted here on the Great Ouse in 1944, but such tension and physical exertion seems a long way away from the lazy pace of life on the river today.

Further up the river one reaches The Maltings. Originally a brewery, this large building incorporates a bar and restaurant and large function space, and when I visited it was housing a craft fair. Although craft fairs may not really fit most modern student tastes, not only did I spot a member of my college bar staff selling jewellery, it’s also where I spotted my only (minor) celebrity of the day – an owl from the Harry Potter film. Admit it, some of you are excited, aren’t you?

Z-list celebrity animal spotting aside, the main highlight of the trip was always going to be the Cathedral. Having lived in Lincoln and York, I was prepared to be somewhat underwhelmed by Ely’s cathedral (Lincoln was the largest in the world before the spires fell down and York is the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe) yet I was pleasantly surprised. Nicknamed the ‘ship of the fens’ the building, with its unique octagonal tower, officially became a Cathedral (i.e the seat of a Bishop) in 1109 and is truly deserving of the title. It has a lot to offer everyone, not just the ecclesiastically-minded and is well worth the £4.00 entry fee which I accidentally (no honestly!) didn’t pay, having come in through the side door…

Modern art fans will appreciate the David Wynne sculptures dotted around, including an interestingly alternative depiction of the Virgin Mary looking a little bit like a high Priestess, with arms raised in elation. Fortunately, this does not spoil the beauty of the Lady Chapel in which it is set (which happens to be not just an ante-room but the largest Lady Chapel in Britain).

Although the information plaques bewail disfigurement during the reformation, the paint-stripped and beheaded statues have produced an eerily beautiful effect that shouldn’t be missed. Also, for fans of college history, the founder of Jesus College and Peterhouse benefactor, Bishop Alcock, has a chapel behind the choir, where the Jesus crest can be found. And after all that the Almondry Croft, the Cathedral’s official tea rooms, offer much needed refreshment in the scenic grounds.

Not quite in the mood for cream tea and scones, I fancied fish and chips, but was informed that the local delicacy was, in fact, eels. Call me stupid if you want but I hadn’t realised that the name Ely was in fact derived from ‘Isle of Eels’ as apparently the city used to be an island and eels were so abundant that at one point they were used as currency!

The citizens of Ely are in fact very proud of their association with the slippery aquatic creature, and the tourist board have devised an entire ‘eel trail’ visiting the ‘eely’ sights of Ely (sorry). There’s even a bench on which the recipe for perfect eel pie is written.

Finally, for the keen historians, Ely is also the site of Cromwell House – family seat of the Lord Protector from 1636. So, if you want to pretend you’re doing research rather than gallivanting about, you could go and have a look, although at £3.60 entrance you’d have to be rather keen indeed to actually go in.

So, whilst Ely is still a quaint Fenland city, and will never challenge London for high adrenaline attractions, it is undoubtedly a relaxing afternoon out, and a great way to escape the bubble and clear your head. I left Cambridge at lunchtime and came back for dinner feeling totally refreshed. And since a return ticket is £2.30 with a railcard, I still had change from a tenner. Bargain!

Betony Lloyd