A walk to challenge the soles and Eels

PUBLISHED: 14:00 27 April 2006 | UPDATED: 13:23 04 May 2010

Ben Jones

Ben Jones

I MUST confess, I rather take Ely for granted. Living in the city, I suppose it s second-nature, at least to me, to do that. I don t really stop to look at the wonderful old houses around the city, or ponder what it would have been like in Cromwell s

I MUST confess, I rather take Ely for granted.

Living in the city, I suppose it's second-nature, at least to me, to do that.

I don't really stop to look at the wonderful old houses around the city, or ponder what it would have been like in Cromwell's time, or think about the fate of the five unfortunate souls who were hung for their part in the Littleport Riots of 1816.

There's so much history to Ely, it's a wonder I've not studied it in any depth before. With Eel Day coming up on April 29, what I need is a guide to walk me around the Eel Trail.

As if by magic, one appears. Blue Badge guide Tony Fletcher has offered to amble around the city with me in an effort to beef up my knowledge of local history.

We start outside Cromwell's House. Opposite, is a bench covered in writing: a recipe for eel pie, it transpires, concocted by Cromwell's wife, Elizabeth. Mind you, as his daughter and mother were both called Elizabeth too, it could have made things rather

confusing.

We walk behind the house, past would have been Cromwell's 16th-century tithe office, to St Mary's Church. This building is unusual because the nave, which is Norman, was built before the chancel was added in the 15th-century. It's

normally the other way around.

On the side of the church is a memorial to the Littleport rioters who were hanged on June 28, 1816. They rioted over the cost of food but then, they didn't have a Tesco. William Beamiss, George Crow, John Dennis, Isaac Harley and Thomas South all paid the price for not having the option of a two-for-one offer on chicken kiev, which is a fair thing to get upset about.

On from here to the cannon on the green. This rather hefty-looking piece of artillery on Palace Green was built in 1802 by the Alexander Arms Factory near St Petersburg, Russia. It was brought to Ely in 1860 as a gift from Queen Victoria, following an appeal 'for men to defend the Empire', and thus the Ely Rifle Volunteers were born.

It's good to know that, if Ely ever gets invaded by hordes of men bearing state-of-the-art weaponry, the city has a 19th-century static gun to defend it. Perhaps surrender would be a better option.

We move now past the Bishop's Palace, which has some fascinating examples of early brickwork, into the cathedral to pick up the key to Prior Crauden's chapel. This chapel, built in 1321 by Alan de Walsingham - who also rebuilt the central part of the cathedral - is one of Ely's hidden gems.

On the site of King's School, it is still used by some of the school's pupils for worship and is also open to the public.

Originally used by the aforementioned Prior Crauden, who was prior of Ely in the 15th-century, it was the in the mid 19-century that the King's School, which then had a grand total of 27 pupils, asked to use it for their sermons.

The chapel, which is reached by a narrow stone staircase, is a pocket-sized marvel. It contains rare 14th-Century mosaic flooring known as 's-grafito', showing Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

On the far wall, there is a faded picture of Christ on the cross, watched by his disciples. It is thought to be one of the last paintings in England with an Italian influence, before the Reformation came about.

Every time Tony, my guide, looks around the chapel, he spots something new - and there is more of interest there than I could ever write about here.

Upon leaving, we walk back towards the cathedral, taking note of the monastic barn which is now the King's School's dining-room, past Infirmary Lane, so called because it is where the old monastery's hospital stood, and where blood-letting took place.

We pause to look at the sundial, added in 1690 to commemorate the restoration of Charles II, emerge out through Sacrist's Gate - that man Walsingham again - and into the High Street.

Two hotels, the Bell and the Red Lion, used to stand here but are now shops. It is worth noting too, that the centre of Ely used to be home to 21 pubs.

Given that I can't make it past three on any pub-crawl, it is perhaps a blessing in disguise that they are no longer there.

We walk down Forehill, along the river, and end at Jubilee Gardens, where the walk traditionally finishes.

On the way back to the office, however, Tony finds time to enhance my knowledge further.

At the top of Cherry Hill, there is a memorial to James Bentham, a 12th-Century scholar who wrote what, even now, is considered to be one of the finest histories of the cathedral ever committed to paper.

Also, payment for the building of the oversized church was 4,000 eels a year for 106 years. That's a great deal of pies in anyone's language.

I've got blisters now, so I'm going to leave it there. For more information on doing the Eel Trail Walk, or getting a guided tour around in Ely, contact Oliver Cromwell's House on 01353 667831.

BEN JONES

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