Perched on a mound of clay above the River Great Ouse about thirty miles south of King’s Lynn, the attractive little town of ELY – literally “eel island” – was to all intents and purposes a true island until the draining of the fens in the seventeenth century. Until then, the town was encircled by treacherous marshland, which could only be crossed with the help of the local “fen-slodgers” who knew the firm tussock paths. In 1070, Hereward the Wake turned this inaccessibility to military advantage, holding out against the Normans and forcing William the Conqueror to undertake a prolonged siege – and finally to build an improvised road floated on bundles of sticks. Centuries later, the Victorian writer Charles Kingsley resurrected this obscure conflict in his novel Hereward the Wake. He presented the protagonist as the Last of the English who “never really bent their necks to the Norman yoke and … kept alive those free institutions which were the germs of our British liberty” – a heady mixture of nationalism and historical poppycock that went down a storm.
Since then, Ely has been associated with Hereward, which is a little ridiculous as Ely is, above all else, a Norman town. The Normans built the cathedral, a towering structure visible for miles across the flat fenland landscape and Ely’s main sight. The rest of Ely is pretty enough: to the immediate north of the church is the High Street, a slender thoroughfare lined with old-fashioned shops, and the river is a relaxing spot with a riverside footpath, a tearoom or two, a small art gallery and an entertainment complex.