A sleepy little town (c. 11,000 pop.) in Cambridgeshire, England. Not Cambridge, New England, because then you're talking Massachussets, which is a different thing entirely. Ely has been around a very long time indeed. The agreed phrase in the guidebooks is "steeped in history". Quite right. Steeped, that's what we are. Wading around in it the whole time, it gets quite tedious, to tell you the truth. You can hardly move without bumping into a sacrist's gate here or a prior's cottage there, founded or restored or sponsored by Alan of Somewhere in 1259. And then just as you're reeling from the knock on the head you got from the authentic medieval stonework, you back into some tourists. These come in three sorts: Japanese, American, and elderly couples on a day trip from Northampton. The elderly couples are polite and timid, the Japanese want you to take a picture of them with a device smaller than the head of a pin, and the Americans tend to use the word "quaint" a lot.
"Oh look, Walt. A quaint English schoolboy. Say, quaint English schoolboy, could you point me in the direction of Eel-Eye1 Cathedral?"
"Yes, it's the very large stone building that you can see quite clearly from anywhere within ten miles."
We are, as has already been mentioned, steeped in the stuff. Once an island in the fens, the Isle of Ely was so called because of all the eels - jolly tasty if your other option is sugar beet. The town was founded in 673 by Etheldreda, a saxon princess, nun, and virgin. Or so legend goes. She was forty-three at the time and had been married twice, so perhaps we should settle for saxon princess and nun. She founded a monastery, which lasted two hundred years before being destroyed by Danish people. Another one was started in 970, which did slightly better, lasting about five hundred and fifty years before being dissolved by Henry VIII. To do this, he put the monastery in a petri dish, added concentrated hydrochloric acid and then heated gently over the bunsen burner, being careful not to singe his beard.
Also started in 970 was the King's School, Ely, eighth oldest school in the country. Almost exactly a thousand years later, the school started taking girls. This was too late for Edward the Confessor, a particularly angelic old boy who by all accounts would have been a damn sight more easy-going if he'd got some at school. The school uses the ancient monastic buildings as dining halls, dormitories and places for spitting on passers-by out of.
The famous cathedral was founded in 1083, is huge and smells funny. The school visits it three times a week first thing in the morning, the philosophy being that sitting in a cold, dank stone building on a miserable, wet day when you would rather be asleep is splendid for instilling the spirit of the Church of England. Come to that, perhaps it is.
Hereward the Wake fought his last pitched battle of resistance against William the Conqueror from Ely, and Oliver Cromwell used to live here too. If you would like a slightly more in-depth look at Ely's history, guaranteed to be free of jokes involving petri dishes, go to www.ely.org.uk. If you miss off the "uk" part, you'll find yourself in Ely, Minnesota. You have been warned.
Things to do in Ely
Well, all right, it's not as bad as that. If you would still like to visit the cathedral despite everything I've said, fine. I'm sure you'll find it quaint. You can also visit Oliver Cromwell's house, or just stroll through the picturesque streets doing a spot of shopping, before elevenses at the Almonry Tea-House. If, however, you are under sixty, you may wish to read the next section.
The Cutter has a nice view of the river and does wonderful chips. The Town House is a bit small and smoky. The Standard pretends to be Irish, isn't, but still gets away with it, because it's kind of cosy. The Fountain is all right, but rather boring and there's nowhere to sit where you can't be ogled from Silver Street. The Minster Tavern is great, and has interesting trivia quiz machines for wasting money on. Deans is full of pool tables and has a huge TV screen; it also hosts a pool competition every Sunday. The prize is usually about 50, but you won't win. The Prince Albert is fun in the summer - it has a beer garden with a menagerie of mangy animals.
If all else fails, Cambridge is fifteen minutes away by train.