Saturday, 22 August 2009

Ely and eels

I'd planned to go to Hereford today, but in the end couldn't face negotiating a half-shut down Victoria Line. So I took the line of least resistance and had a day trip to Ely, island of eels. Walking up from the station through a park, you catch sight of the magnificent cathedral with its pepper-pot towers and wonderful octagon.
The first holy site here was the monastery founded by St Etheldreda. After an unhappy second marriage, she persuaded her husband to let her leave to go and do good deeds, but he changed his mind and tried to nab her back. She escaped and ended up here in 673. Ely seems to have been invaded by just about everyone - Romans, Normans, Vikings, the cathedral has seen good days and bad. Bits of it have collapsed and after the reformation, it had a bishop who delighted in knocking chunks out of it. But the Victorians started restoring it and now it's a most wonderful building inside and out.
My first stop though was at the busy farmers market. There's a great range of food and plant stalls, including one from Belleau Bridge Trout Farm and Smokery where I was thrilled to find smoked eel.
Eels were the staple food here for centuries, and the city is named for the fishy treat. There's only one professional eel catcher left now, but you can follow the city's eel trail which traces the history of the connection. Sad to say, the smoked eel swam its last in the Netherlands, but it's smoked in Lincolnshire. I sampled the smoked trout pate: delicious, so I'll have a pot of that. Further along, I bought a loaf of dark rye with caraway seeds to go with the eel, and a pot of fenland lime jelly - I love the incongruity of the name. But it has a great limey depth of flavour. As the day was hot, and I wouldn't be home for a few hours, I passed by the venison stall. The farmers' market then morphs into a great general market, selling second hand books, bric a brac, clothes and toys.
I was magnetically drawn to the pottery stall run by Felicity Hoyle, who works in Norfolk.
I find hand-thrown pottery hard to resist, and bought a pouring bowl and gratin dish.
Heading back to the cathedral, I popped into a wood turning exhibition. My favourite piece was this carving of St Mark as a lion.
Then it was into the cathedral. Although my dad was a Church of England priest, I've never been religious. But I've grown up in the Anglican choral tradition, and was lucky enough to be in a brilliant school choir that sang in cathedrals all over the country, so I have an abiding love of the culture and architecture of the church. On this visit, my highlight was the astonishing Prior's Door, built and carved in the 12th century.
The workmanship is exquisite, and all down to lintels there are tiny figures of humans and animals. The saddest thing is a plaque set in a wall commemorating a much loved 13-year-old son, kicked to death by a horse in the 18th century. There's an excellent guide to the cathedral and its history here.
Time to head for home with my goodies and contemplate a fishy supper.


Dan said...

Really interesting Fran, Ive been meaning to visit Ely for a while actually. I was so close once, bought a massive mirror off Ebay from someone who lived about two miles from the center, but had to get home as didnt calculate size right and mirror was hanging out the back of the car. It looks really nice from your photos, what else is in the town? recommend it as somewhere to visit for the day?

fran39 said...

Hi Dan - if you can go on a Saturday when the farmers market is in town, I'd strongly recommend it. Yesterday I also popped into the town's museum, which is small but very informative about the history of the city and the fens. Two things I didn't do yesterday but have done before: wander down to the river and take a boat trip followed by tea at Peacock's tea rooms; visit Oliver Cromwell's house at the centre of town. It's a perfect day trip.