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Ely (pronounced like "really" - don't call it Eli) is a cathedral city in Cambridgeshire. It is just 14 miles from Cambridge, so is a popular tourist attraction for anyone coming to the Cambridgeshire area. It has a population of approximately 20,000, making it a small city.
If you were to visit Ely, your first concern would be how to get to Ely. Ely is easy to reach on train from London (direct train) and from the North or Midlands by changing at Peterborough. The train station is located out of the city centre and would take around 20 minutes to walk from. There are no buses stopping close to the station going into the town centre, apart from the Park and Ride (which I will mention in a moment). Ely can also be reached from some major roads, such as the A1 and the A14; leading onto the A10 and into Ely. If you were to drive into Ely you would have a few choices regarding parking. You would probably consider using the Park and Ride first - don't. Councillors have invested over £1million into a Park and Ride located near the train station. Whilst this was an excellent idea in theory, in practice it hasn't worked. This is probably due to the fact that you have to pay to use this Park and Ride, when parking in the city centre is free, or using another Park and Ride service, from the secondary school, is also free. Ely is also accessible on bus, often changing at Cambridge and then onward to Ely.
What is there to do:
Chances are that no matter what you are interested in, you will find something to do in Ely. Do you like history and cream teas? Then visit the museum, Oliver Cromwell's House, The Cathedral and then stop by The Almonry Restaurant located in the Cathedral grounds for a light lunch or a cream tea. If art is more your thing then take advantage of the stained glass museum located in the Cathedral and The Babylon gallery which has just reopened (Valentine's day, 2009). If you enjoy picturesque river scenes then you can head down to The Ouse, with a beautiful park area and dine at The Maltings, located just on the riverside. Or if, like me, shopping is more your thing, then take advantage of the high street stores, as well as independent retailers you will find in the city centre. The high street stores (such as New Look) are not as big as in larger cities, but with Cambridge just 14 miles away, getting to a larger city is no problem.
Eating in Ely:
Much like the choice of things to do in Ely, choosing where to eat in Ely is much the same. You can take your pick from fast food such as fish and chips (award winning fish & chips located in the marketplace), pub meals right the way up to (almost) gourmet dining. There is something to suit everyone's tastes as well as everyone's budgets!
Ely market takes place on a Thursday and a Saturday. Every second Saturday there is the farmer's market, focusing more on local farmers produce. There can be as many as 60 stalls on the market, making it a great shopping treat! You can pick up anything from fruit and vegetables to pine furniture, with everything in between. Some of the stalls worth mentioning include a freshly ground coffee stall, tools stall, fish van, cheap food stall (generally items that are nearing their sell-by date, or excess stock), card stalls, home wares and so much more. The market starts at 8am and finishes at 4pm, although I've rarely seen stalls stay open until 4pm.
In conclusion, visiting Ely would make a fantastic day out, or even a weekend away, but for any longer would probably result in you being very bored. There are a lot of activities you can choose from, but they aren't in the same league as larger cities.
I first wrote this review almost three years ago, when I was torn between giving Ely four or five stars... now I'm torn between giving it three or four. Ive changed the narrative accordingly, based on more recent observations of the place.
Ely is probably the only town worth visiting in the Fens of Cambridgeshire. All around it for many miles are unpleasant, violence-ridden villages such as Littleport, or grim flatland market towns such as Downham Market. But Ely, sitting on a hill with one of the most majestic cathedrals in England, is well worth a visit.
Aside from the cathedral, it doesn't look that amazing when you walk out of the train station, but that says more about where many train stations are situated than anything else.
Once you find the city centre, you'll see that the city (and it's quite a small city really) has a number of interesting shops as well, of course, as the cathedral itself.
As I said, the cathedral is one of the best in England, and also features a stained glass museum on the first floor with some excellent works of art. It costs to go in, but they do need the money. One thing I have noticed (and about which Im not sure how I feel) is that the people who help run the cathedral have allegedly been pestering people for money to just go into the cathedral, and even following them around asking for money. Wrong tactic I think- but I understand why theyve been asked to do. Upkeep and maintenance of buildings like these is not cheap, and unfortunately most people like to get everything and pay nothing if they can get away with it- hence the problem.
The best shop in the city is down by the riverside, and is called "Waterside Antiques". This is a big, rambling old antiques shop on three floors, and if like me you like to spend hours wandering about peering at interesting objects (no, not THAT sort of interesting object ;) ) you will absolutely love it.
Aside from that, these days Ely is mostly chain stores- there are some small independent shops on the high street and the market street but who knows how long theyll last. The place certainly doesnt have the character it did several years ago.
Ely has a farmers market on Thursdays and a general market on Saturdays. Worth a look round, but if you go there enough times youll see that most of the items are the same, so very little seems to get sold. Twice a year they also have a French market, where jams, meats, cheeses, breads etc. are sold for about three times their worth.
If you're a pubbing kind of person, the Maltings by the riverside has a nice, clean and professional feel to it, and the food is highly recommended. Its bland and commercial, but at least it isnt trying to be anything else. Alternatively you can try the Minster Tavern which is just a stone's throw from the cathedral. This is quite popular with busloads of pensioners during the holiday season. The food has improved in recent years and isnt bad at all. I wouldnt go in there after about 7pm though as it does tend to get a bit local and lairy.
If you're after a more ramshackle, rough-and-ready pub, the Cutter Inn by the riverside WAS such a place- atmospheric and homely in an odd sort of way- especially in warm weather when you can sit outside and look out over the river, watch the swan and geese and the boats going past (and Ely has a LOT of boats!). But now theyve gone and done what they do with most pubs sooner or later- given it a bland makeover and turned into a family-friendly-eatery type place with bored, stressed waitresses hovering or carrying too many plates of food thats been hurriedly reheated.
There are a few other pubs such as the West End and the Fountain, populated mostly by a mixture of the Hooray Henrys from the nearby Kings College and a selection of bearded Real Ale snobs. I like my beer not to be warm and sour with the colour of filth, so avoid such places.
Then you have the Do not enter if you value your life pubs- the Town House, the High Flyer occupied by chavs and white-van-man types supping their Stella and waiting for it to kick in.
FOR THOSE BORN WITH A SILVER SPOON IN THEIR MOUTHS
The well-to-do of Ely, who Im sure do their best to make sure they never see the seedier side of the city, send their precious little darlings to the Kings School, which offers a shoo-in for Cambridge University for those with the right money and the right connections. The chavs hate the spoiled brats and vice versa, so theres another problem.
NOT AS GOOD AS IT USED TO BE
Afraid not. The city has lost a lot of its character, mainly because of its rapid expansion- unfortunately the powers that be have decided to create dozens of new estates but havent backed any of them up with much in the way of new facilities. Its continuing to grow, and apparently there are also plans for a new town just to the south, called Mereham, which all the locals are up in arms about.
Ely is worth a visit- during the day (make it a sunny day if you can). The Waterside area (by the river) is worth spending time at. But like most British towns which could once be described as nice its on a slow downward slide.
But despite this, it's still nicer than pretty much everywhere else in the area!
Ely is a funny place. Its on the interface between the Fens and the rest of the world. When I first visited Ely 4 years ago, the first thing that struck me was that there were a variety of car parks that were close to the centre, that were all free and there were plenty of spaces. We were house hunting and so bought a copy of the local paper. It had a letter from someone talking about "Ely's parking crisis". He was basically complaining that on a market day, he couldn't park outside the shop he wanted to visit on the High Street, for free, for as long as he wanted. Having lived/worked in South London, Bath, Stratford upon Avon and Oxford, where being able to park anywhere within half a mile of where you wanted to be was a bonus, it came as a bit of a culture shock. Whichever direction you approach Ely from, the first thing you see from 5-10 miles away is the Cathedral. This is because 1. Its big (the West tower is 215 feet tall) 2. Its on the top of a hill that is 25m above sea level. 3. The surrounding fens are flat. Dead flat. The next railway station along the line to Norwich is at "Shippea Hill". The station is exactly at sea level. The "Hill" is about 3m higher than the surrounding land. The Cathedral is an amazing building. You should definitely go on a tour where you go up one of the towers. Also check out the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Lady Chapel. Its looks just like Charlie Dimmock. In front of the Cathedral is a building that used to be the Bishop's Palace. Its now used as a Sue Ryder old-people's home. Every so often they have an open day in the garden. These are well worth going to see the Plane tree. Its over 300 years old and is the oldest one in Britain. Near the Cathedral, just across the road from St Mary's Church is the Old Fire Engine House. This is a restaurant/tea shop/art gallery. The garden is lovely, and you can also lo
ok around upstairs, including a peaceful sitting room. Its a very civilised place and the staff are great. They do afternoon tea from 3.30pm to 5 on a Sunday. On a weekday, you can probably get tea and cake other times too. I have had some really nice meals there, but I haven't been much recently. I noted a review at http://www.businessweekly.co.uk/eating/profile.asp?establishment=104 which says that the food is not as good as it used to be. Ely has really good rail connections, much better than the roads. You can get to Cambridge (18 mins with 3 trains an hour) London (70 mins 1-2 trains an hour), Norwich (45 mins 1-2 times an hour), Kings Lynn (30 mins every hour) and Peterborough (30 mins 1-2 times an hour) faster by train than you can by car. There are also direct trains to Stansted, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool (although it takes 5 hours to get there). So long as you don't want to get into London, then the trains are also pretty cheap. A peak return to Cambridge is £3.50 or so, whilst for £9 you can get an off peak day rover ticket for any trains to Norwich, and on to Cromer or Great Yarmouth. In Ely's shops you can get everything you _need_, but there its the sort of place with relatively little temptation for an over-stretched credit card. For clothing there are quite a few budget shops (New Look, Peacocks etc), but nothing much from the middle range (Next or H&M). There is a Waitrose in the town centre and a big Tescos near the station. Instead of a B&Q or Homebase, there are a couple of agricultural places and some more traditional hardware shops. Pecks opens on a Sunday and it stocks some home stuff as well as a full range of tractor parts. Ely is at least 75 minutes to drive from an Ikea - at Wembley, Thurrock, Birmingham or Nottingham. The main UK warehouse for Ikea is only half an hours drive away, but you can't get anything from there! You can get broadband internet access from NTL cable an
d just recently from BT. Ely has a cinema but its a temporary affair in a hall near the river. It shows a mixture of some art house movies and a few blockbusters a few months behind the outside world. On the positive side of things, you can take a pint of beer into the cinema. Ely has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. It was a real backwater then. Now that it has become part of the commuter belt for the Cambridge area, there has been a big increase in the population, with thousands of new houses being built around the edge of the city, as well as filling in all the odd bits of disused land closer to the centre. When new houses get built, then they tend to be filled more by people with young families than with teenagers. This influx of people is changing the demographics of the place. There are a lot more young children than there are teenagers and there is a lot for a toddler to do. The primary schools are growing and have a pretty good reputation. The local secondary school has a poorer reputation. I don't know how well deserved this is. There are a lot of elderly people in Ely. On a Thursday morning its pension and market day and there are traffic jams of electric buggies! Although its 18 miles from Ely to Cambridge, you can drive it in about 25 minutes when there is no traffic, 40 minutes on a normal morning or 60 minutes if its busy. The slow bit is the last couple of miles in Cambridge. However it can take around about that long to get around Cambridge itself if you're in the wrong part. However, for the price of a nice house in a nice bit of Ely, you either get a nice house in a nasty bit of Cambridge or a nasty house in a nice bit For Ely estate agents, some aren't on the web, but http://marketplaceproperty.rightmove.co.uk/mp/s/mp/template/publicsite%2Cbuying%2C PropertySearch.vm http://www.cheffins.co.uk/estate_agents/ely/index.htm and http://www.clarkandstewart.co.uk/index-homes.htm cover most of them. <
br> The local papers are http://w3.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/ely/ and http://ely-standard.co.uk To summarise, Ely is a compact city with a population of 12,000. Its got everything that you _need_. It just might not have everything you want.