The Island of Ely, Cambridgeshire: Where 85ft above sea level is almost a mountain

Clive Aslet takes a look at Ely, the beautiful and ancient city that can be seen from miles around in the Fens.

Ely is only 15 miles from Cambridge, but, even today, when the octagon of the cathedral is silhouetted against the blood-orange sunset of an immense fenland sky, it can seem remote and spooky. The 23-square-mile prominence on which the city is built made it an island until the Fens were drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th century; not for nothing did Ely Cathedral earn the nickname ‘the Ship of the Fens’.

Half a millennium before those engineers came, the Island of Ely this provided a refuge for one of the last Saxon leaders to stand against William the Conqueror after 1066. This folk hero has come down to us as Hereward the Wake. Like the second half of Winnie-the-Pooh’s name, nobody quite knows what ‘the Wake’ means; presumably, it was intended to suggest that he was always on the qui vive against his enemies. He was, however, a real man, as his story appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1071.

Hereward had returned from exile to find his family lands seized, his brother killed, his sister raped. After killing many Normans single-handedly, he fled to Ely, where the Bishop of Durham and several hundred followers joined him.

Vintage engraving showing a scene from the story of the Anglo-Saxon English hero Hereward the Wake, and how Hereward departed from Ely and killed the mare “Swallow”.

When William sent an army against them, Hereward used his knowledge of the watery fens to defeat them: cunningly waiting until the Norman troops were stationed on a pontoon to cross the marsh before setting fire to it.

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Eventually, a monk betrayed him, but Hereward slipped away — and out of the pages of history — before he was caught.

How to visit Ely

Ely sits to the north of Cambridge and Newmarket, on the main A10 — and the Great Ouse — which runs up to Downham Market and King’s Lynn; there’s also a railway station. No matter which way you arrive, you’ll see the place from miles around: Ely’s highest point is a mere 85ft above sea level, but the surrounding land is almost completely flat — and much of it lies at or even below sea level.

The city, the fifth smallest in England by population with just 15,000 residents, has plentiful shops, restaurants and hotels. Then there’s the famed cathedral, one of the finest in the country. Tickets costs £9 for visitors.

Evening at Ely Cathedral. (Photo by: Slawek Staszczuk/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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