In and around Ely
The Waterside Area
Peacocks overlooks the slipway in Ely where the old main street starts to climb up from the river towards the town centre and the magnificent Cathedral. For hundreds of years from when Ely was an island in the fens, right up until the twentieth century when road travel became easier, this spot was one of the commercial hubs of the town. Now it is much quieter.
A riverside footpath outside the door allows you to stroll out into the fenland countryside in either direction. Next door is East Anglia’s largest antiques centre – with three floors of treasure to discover - and on the other side of us is Babylon Gallery, with a good turnover of interesting exhibitions. Two or three minutes along the river the Cutter Inn offers food and drink in an enviable position, and the Boathouse Restaurant has been a popular eating place for decades. In the warmer months you can take a half-hour trip up and down the river on the Liberty Belle, or hire Vitor’s water bicycles to explore on your own.
If you are new to Ely, you will find plenty to interest you in this little Fenland market town. (Thursday is market day and on Saturdays the market square hosts a crafts fair as well as a farmer's market on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month.)
The town is dominated by the vast and magnificent medieval Cathedral – much of it is twelfth century. Book lovers mustn’t miss Toppings in the High Street – undoubtedly one of the best bookshops in the country. The Burrows family run a traditional newsagents at the top of the High Street as well as a sweet little bookshop in High Street Passage.
Cutlacks hardware store, on the hill as you stroll up to town, has four floors of things you didn’t know you needed. Even more varied is Ely's largest department store bearing the unlikely name City Cycle Centre. In this maze-like building you will find toys, racing bikes, ribbons, a Chinese tuck-shop and more.
Visitors to Britain may think it a wet place, where you need to carry an umbrella just in case. However, Ely is generally not as bad as that. We are in the driest part of Britain with less rain fall on average than Beirut, Rome, Sydney or new York! Even in winter the climate tends to be mild. One of the downsides is that we rarely get enough frost to be able to skate on the river!
Things to do near Ely
Once you have explored Ely and want to discover a bit more of East Anglia by car there are plenty of possibilities. If you like old country houses check our National Trust Handbook or their website, for details of their properties in East Anglia. Among the closest are Anglesey Abbey near Cambridge, Peckover House in Wisbech, and Wicken Fen – the first Nature Reserve in the country.
Cambridge of course is full of interest – colleges, museums, shops, concerts, cinemas and a wonderful display of plants at the Botanic Gardens. The paintings alone in the Fitzwilliam Museum are worth a special trip (there is much more there, from Egyptian mummies to armour and the finest pottery of all sorts). Parking in Cambridge can be an expensive nightmare and it is often best to go by train or use the Park & Ride buses from the outskirts.
Newmarket – less than 25 minute’s drive from here – is ‘the home of horseracing’. The Horseracing Museum is well worth a visit, and tours are organized around various studs but best of all, and it is free, is to park above the town on the Gallops early one morning and watch the horses being put through their paces. An autumnal mist or a covering of snow in the winter just adds to the atmosphere.
Another ‘out of season' attraction is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Reserve at Welney. In the winter thousands of swans, some of whom have summered in Iceland or Scandinavia, make this their base and at dusk food is put out for them and their feeding area is floodlit making it an unforgettable sight from one of the hides.
Beyond Cambridgeshire, it is easy to explore both Suffolk and Norfolk by car, each has a wealth of interesting towns and villages.
North Norfolk has some delightful undeveloped beaches - Holkham (about 1h 30mins away) is one of our favourites - en route, King’s Lynn has a fascinating old town area near the river dotted with architectural gems. In Suffolk, the seaside is further away and needs an early start to make a day of it, but both Southwold and Aldeburgh are old fashioned seaside towns well worth the trip. Closer to Ely, Bury St Edmunds (45mins) and Lavenham (1 hour 15 mins or so) both have interesting buildings and good places to eat.
Ely has excellent train links around East Anglia - as well as to London and the rest of the country. It takes a while to understand the ticketing system and it's often best to buy a ticket in advance but Cambridge, King's Lynn, Norwich and Bury St Edmunds are all easy to reach and worth the effort.
There are some good footpaths to explore the fen countryside - and no steep hills! - and by bike it's not hard to avoid the traffic and enjoy a long or a short ride.