Around Ely

Explore Cambridgeshire's lovely cathedral city of Ely on this short trail




3.25 miles (5.3kms)

125ft (38m)
1hr 30min

About the walk

If it wasn’t for the cathedral, Ely would properly be called a town, because its layout makes it just the right size to be explored on foot. But don’t be fooled by the short distance of this walk – there is so much to see that you could easily spend a whole day wandering among the historic buildings and still manage to miss out on the home-made cakes in the cathedral’s Refectory Café.

The Ship of the Fens

The centrepiece of Ely and indeed this walk is the cathedral, which features on the skyline at almost every turn. St Etheldreda, Queen of Northumbria, first established a monastery here in AD 673 and 400 years later the Normans began work on the mighty building you see today. It’s affectionately known as the Ship of the Fens, partly because Ely was sited on a small island that rose out of the swampy Fenland so that the hilltop cathedral, with its huge octagonal tower rising up like a colossal mast, dominates the view for miles around.

Beyond the equally historic Priory and Canonry Houses, to the west of the cathedral, is Porta Gate (or Ely Porta). This imposing 14th-century gateway was once the main entrance to the monastery and is now part of The King’s School, East Anglia’s oldest independent school, which also uses the nearby Queen’s Hall and Prior Crauden’s Chapel.

For more background to both Ely and the Fens in general spend some time at Ely Museum at the end of the walk. It’s housed in the former Bishops’ Gaol and still retains the original hidden doorways, wall-planking and prisoners’ graffiti. Among its eye-catching exhibits is a model of Ely Cathedral made up of over 5,000 matchsticks. The museum is open daily (afternoon only on Sunday).

Celebrating the eel

Ely’s name comes from ‘Eelig’, meaning 'eel island', and for a while local taxes were even payable in eels. For many years the River Great Ouse provided a useful catch for the local inhabitants and today the humble eel is celebrated in a rather quirky annual festival. The Ely Eel Festival takes place over a weekend when local cafes and restaurants are encouraged to provide the likes of eel stew and eel pie, smoked and jellied eels; while others adopt the eel theme to feature eel-shaped biscuits and sausage rolls or eel-themed cocktails. There’s an eel-throwing competition (using stuffed socks instead of eels!) and a carnival procession through the city centre headed by ‘Ellie the Eel’. Today eels are still caught in the River Great Ouse, although only one eel catcher remains. For more on Ely and its eels look for ‘The Eel Trail’ leaflet available from the tourist information centre.

Walk directions

Exit the far corner of Barton Road car park, aiming for the cathedral. Turn left on to Silver Street, by The Prince Albert pub, then at the end go right on to St Mary’s Street to reach the tourist information centre, housed in a 13th-century building that was Oliver Cromwell’s former home. Walk past St Mary’s parish church to reach Palace Green and ahead to the glorious west face of the cathedral.

Walk along the left-hand side of the cathedral on Steeple Row and follow the semicircular path all the way around to the far side (the gates close at 6.30pm). Go down the street opposite, past various monastic buildings, as far as the Porta Gate (or Ely Porta). 

Don’t go through the huge gateway, but turn left on a surfaced path signposted Riverside’ and ‘Maltings’. Walk down past Ely Park, cross the road (Broad Street) at the bottom via the pedestrian lights, and continue opposite through Jubilee Gardens to reach the River Great Ouse.

Turn left and walk along the busy waterfront, past the old Maltings as far as the bridge to the marina. If you want to shorten the route and avoid the field and woodland paths branch left here, back to the city centre via Fore Hill. Otherwise, continue along Pegasus Walk, waterside of the Babylon Gallery. Continue past some trees and underneath the railway bridge, then out across an open meadow on a broad, semi-surfaced path that gradually drifts away from the river. 

Go through a gate at the far side, turn left on to a narrow path by a depot and left again at the end, along Kiln Lane. Go over a level crossing and immediately turn left on to a wide path through trees (signposted ‘Hereward Way’). Follow this track known as Springhead Lane for over 0.25 miles (400m), ignoring all paths off left and right, until it finally bends right and emerges at a road. 

Cross over, go up a wide grassy strip between houses, and after 100yds (91m) turn left, indicated ‘public footpath’, for a passageway between buildings. At the end go right, then immediately left, at the end of Vineyard Way. Walk along this street (aiming for the cathedral, now in sight) to emerge at Market Place. 

Walk up the pedestrianised Market Street to Ely Museum at the very end. Turn left into Lynn Street, walk past The Lamb hotel and go straight ahead at the road junction to return to the cathedral and Palace Green. Turn right to return to the start.

Additional information

Surfaced tracks and pavements

Urban centre and busy waterfront, meadow and woodland

On lead around city and among livestock in meadow

OS Explorer 226 Ely & Newmarket

Barton Road car park

By car park, cathedral and quayside

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About the area

Discover Cambridgeshire

To the west of East Anglia is Cambridgeshire, a county best known as the home to the university that makes up the second half of ‘Oxbridge’ (the other half is Oxford). As well as its globally renowned educational credentials, it also has a rich natural history; much of its area is made up of reclaimed or untouched fens. These are low-lying areas which are marshy and prone to flooding. The lowest point in the UK is at Holme Fen, which is some 9 feet (2.75 metres) below sea level. Some of the fens had been drained before, but it was in the 19th and 20th centuries that wide-spread, successful drainage took place, expanding the amount of arable and inhabitable land available.

Ely Cathedral was built on an island among the swampy fens, but now sits among acres of productive farmland, albeit farmland criss-crossed by miles of flood-preventing watercourses. Oliver Cromwell was born in Ely, and his family home can still be visited. Cambridge itself is a beautiful and historic city, with any number of impressive old buildings, churches and colleges, and plenty of chances to mess about on the River Cam which gave the city its name.

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