Looking Back: 'Ely is dirtiest place I’ve seen'

PUBLISHED: 11:27 19 January 2006 | UPDATED: 11:27 04 May 2010

Historian LYNNE TURNER

Historian LYNNE TURNER

TOURISTS are not a new phenomenon to the streets of Ely. I have mentioned before that in medieval times pilgrims travelled to Ely in their droves for feast days. The cathedral inmates were delighted to have the remains of four saints within the hallowed

TOURISTS are not a new phenomenon to the streets of Ely. I have mentioned before that in medieval times pilgrims travelled to Ely in their droves for feast days.

The cathedral inmates were delighted to have the remains of four saints within the hallowed precincts, even though one had been stolen from Dereham.

One such tourist to Ely gives us a clear insight into how Ely appeared in 1698. The intrepid traveller was Celia Fiennes, by all accounts a strong-minded and feisty woman.

She was the daughter of Nathaniel Fiennes the Civil War Parliamentary leader. She was born in 1662 and by the time of her death in 1741 had visited nearly every major city in England.

Fiennes recorded her travels in a journal, but her writings were completely unknown until Robert Sothey, the Poet Laureate, published extracts from her book in the early nineteenth century. It was not until 1888 that the full journal was published.

In 1698, Fiennes visited the north of England, then travelled all the way down to Cornwall before returning to London via Ely (this route would have put us on the M4).

She approached Ely from Newmarket and Chippenham Park; and recorded: "The Wayes being very deep. It's mostly lanes and low Moorish ground. For four miles together I passed over a low ground on each side defended by the fen dykes which are deep ditches with drains. The fens are full of water and mud .... all this while Ely Minster is in one's view at a mile distant you would think, but it is a long four miles."

At this time Ely was entered by a gravel causeway that was kept in repair by the bishop.

In winter the causeway was flooded and the only way of getting to Ely was by boat. To get into the town "you ascend a very steep hill". On arriving in the town centre she declared it to be "the dirtiest place I ever saw, not a bit of pitching in the streets. So it's a perfect quagmire". This lack of pitching, she decided, was the reason that there were so many vermin nesting in the streets making it look more like a "cage or nest of creatures" than a place fit for human inhabitation. Her room was 20 steps up yet was also home to "frogs, slow-worms and snails".

Fiennes was none too flattering about the inhabitants either. She described them as "a slothful people" who seemed to do little else than tend their cattle and grounds. "There is no trading in the town , their main business is on draining and fencing their grounds and breeding and grazing cattle".

She blamed the frequently absent Bishop for this rather lazy attitude to life. The bishop's stone house was unfurnished. The town had lost its Charter and there was no corporation.

Of the cathedral our intrepid explorer describes it as a "curious pile of building", despite the Reformation the pillars were carved and painted "with the history of the Bible especially the New Testament and descriptions of Christ's miracles". As the Puritan Celia saw it, Ely Cathedral had "the most Popish remains in its walls of any I have seen" and there was a chapel for confession with a chair of state for the priest, where he sat, when confessions had been made. There still remains a cross over the altar. The candlesticks are three quarters of a yard high, massive silver gilt very heavy.

Finally, she was won over by the lantern. "The lantern in the choir is vastly high and delicately painted and fine carved work all of wood in it. The bells used to be hung five, the dimension of the biggest was so much, when they rung them it shook the choir and the carved work that it was thought unsafe. Therefore they were taken down".

The Octagon remains to be one of the jewels in Ely Cathedral's crown, encouraging present day tourists to visit Ely. Let us hope that the residents are a bit more dynamic to our guests these days and that the local hostelries have got rid of the frogs, slow-worms and snails!

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