Cromwell, a cathedral and through a stained glass brightly: 24 hours in Ely

The Coronation bunting on the outside of Oliver Cromwell’s House in Ely was an ironic touch. Oliver’s forebears might have liked it: his great-grandfather Richard Williams changed his name to Cromwell as a sign of support for Thomas Cromwell, who helped Henry VIII to dissolve the monasteries.

Oliver, a Cambridgeshire boy who had been born in Huntingdon and then in St Ives, came to Ely because he inherited a large estate from his maternal uncle. Oliver moved into the house next to St Mary’s Church in 1636 along with his mother, two sisters, his wife and six children. Two more daughters were born here and the family stayed until 1647 when they moved to London.

The house in which the Cromwells lived, which originates from the 13th century, was twice the size of the current building. Half of it was demolished in the mid-19th century. Nonetheless, what remains – which now incorporates the local Tourist Information Centre – is well worth a visit.

The visitor route takes you through the parlour and kitchen – in which you can see a recreation of one of Mrs Cromwell’s eel dishes in preparation – and upstairs to a sequence of rooms which explain what life would have been like here around that time. The Civil War Room gives a helpful overview of the conflict in which Oliver led Parliamentary forces to victory against Charles I, and the subsequent Protectorate.

Oliver refused the chance to proclaim himself King and, after his death in 1658, the regime lasted only two more years before the restoration of the monarchy in the form of Charles II. In the house’s Haunted Bedroom, there’s a recreation of Oliver’s deathbed scene and a commentary recounts the grisly fate of his corpse after the Restoration (dug up and hanged, decapitated, the head eventually buried in Sidney Sussex Cambridge where Oliver had studied).

A few minutes away, Ely Cathedral‘s history goes back even further than Oliver Cromwell’s House, although it might easily have been a casualty of the Civil War. According to the House’s guidebook, the Cathedral only survived because the cost of demolition was greater than the value of the remaining materials! But it’s still here today and, like Oliver Cromwell’s House, special displays to celebrate the Coronation of Charles III were in place at the time of our visit.

The Cathedral’s story begins back in the 7th century with Etheldreda, a princess married to the heir to the kingdom of Northumbria who wanted to become a nun. She escaped her husband’s attentions and founded a double monastery for men and women in 673AD. Etheldreda died of a neck tumour seven years later but, after her body was exhumed and the tumour was found to have healed, she gained the status of a saint and Ely became a place of pilgrimage.

The Vikings destroyed Etheldreda’s church; a thorough rebuilding had to wait until the appointment of Abbot Simeon by William the Conqueror, with the Abbey becoming a cathedral in 1109. As you’d expect, the building’s survival and development over the centuries means that it’s now a mixture of styles such as Romanesque and Early English Gothic.

The most distinctive feature, the central Octagon Tower, is not original. It’s the successor to a square central Norman tower which collapsed one night in February 1322. The eight sides are symbolic of eight days, with the eighth representing time beyond earthly time (reckoned in units of seven days).

Don’t miss the Lady Chapel, either, which is the largest of its type for any cathedral in Britain. You’ll need some imagination to picture how it looked in its prime (before damage during the Reformation period): windows of stained glass, and rich painted colours on the statues, some of which are now headless, in the niches.

There’s one more unmissable highlight inside the Cathedral. On its upper level, the UK’s only museum of stained glass contains a gallery of examples from the 13th century to the 21st, along with helpful display explanations of the processes of making, cutting and decorating the glass. While many famous names feature in the gallery, my favourite piece is probably a 15th-century work by an anonymous artist, portraying Reynard the Fox in disguise as a monk-bishop, preaching to geese before trapping them…

Time to spare?: the newly upgraded Ely Museum gives a very useful introduction to the history of Ely and the surrounding Fens. If you love a good bookshop, Topping & Company‘s three floors of books on the High Street will keep you busy for hours.

Staying: we loved our suite above the award-winning tearooms at Peacocks, down by the River Great Ouse. The team couldn’t have been more helpful, and Dennis the dog was there each morning to ensure we enjoyed the delicious granolas which are part of Peacocks’ breakfasts.

Eating: plenty of good options in what is one of Britain’s smallest cities, but try to book a place at The Old Fire Engine House, so called because of a previous role as home to Ely’s horse-drawn fire engine. Now it’s an art gallery (upstairs) and a friendly, old-school restaurant. We enjoyed the smoked eel, sea bass and rhubarb fool. It’s the only restaurant where the staff have asked if we’d like seconds…

Further information: for more on Ely, Cambridgeshire and the Fens, see Bradt’s guide.

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