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davidx Cambridge - A travel report by David
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Cambridge,  United Kingdom - flag United Kingdom
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davidx's travel reports

Cambridge and Ely

  16 votes
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In general I am terribly ignorant about the east side of England south of Yorkshire but my last birthday present from my youngest son was a trip to Cambridge and Ely and two nights bed and breakfast. Hence this report.

One of Cambridge's oldest buildings.
One of Cambridge's oldest buildings.
As a lover of hills and mountains and being used to Yorkshire, where I live, and Devon, where I spent most of my boyhood, I can’t say I find anything to enthuse about in the flat countryside of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. Here and there you find a bit of water worth a second glance but there’s nothing like the Broads in the eastern county of Norfolk. Whether there is any sense in which the architectural splendour of Ely Cathedral and some of the University buildings in Cambridge were intended to compensate for the surroundings I know not – but they certainly do a great deal in that direction. Historically there was far more water. That was what enabled Hereward the Wake, with vastly inferior resources, to pester the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest - but most of the Fens are now drained. Ely, like Wells in England and St David’s in Wales is a small place with an impressive [to say the VERY least] cathedral. As for Cambridge, I went to the one university in England where Cambridge can be regarded as a newcomer but it seems old enough now! Its University was founded in 1134 and some actually prefer it to Oxford for visiting because the town is smaller and because they think [mistakenly in my view] that Oxford can’t match the beauty of ‘The Backs’. I’m very ready to concede that it can’t beat them. The main area covered by the Colleges and by the Fitzwilliam Museum is not large and most people will prefer to be on foot to see it. A bus in from the station may well be a good idea. We only had a short time left for the museum as we went mainly for the architecture, which is covered below, but this seemed a real shame at the time and I reckon anybody with a serious interest should allow at least two complete days, probably meaning three night, for the two places. During the Commonwealth period, Ely Cathedral was shut for 10 years and used to stable Cromwell’s horses!

Favourite spots:
The Lantern, Ely Cathedral [main tower not shown]
The Lantern, Ely Cathedral [main tower not shown]
‘Breathtaking’ is an overused word so use your own for Ely Cathedral but it will certainly have the same meaning. It shows the development of mediaeval architecture in England as you progress through the Norman nave to Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular in the chancel and Lady Chapel. Work on the present building started in the 12th century, though there has been a cathedral on the site from the 7th. The feature that drives me to use words like breathtaking is the octagonal lantern, which was built to replace a central tower in the 14th century. It isn’t easy to photograph with normal amateur equipment but don’t take my word for it. At least look at and go to: cathedral – guided tour – octagon. It was quite unique, a huge weight and a triumph of mediaeval engineering. With almost a 50 foot vault and huge Perpendicular window, the Lady Chapel remains impressive enough, even after substantial damage during the Reformation.

What's really great:
Pembroke College Chapel, Wren's first
Pembroke College Chapel, Wren's first
Cambridge is so full of fine sights that it’s hard to define ‘special’ but surely it must include King’s College Chapel. Unlike Ely Cathedral it is of one style, Perpendicular, and may well be the most perfect building of its type. Certainly it improves the image of Henry VI a bit; a weak and often mad king, he was said to be more like a monk and here is a tribute to his religious fervour. So much was he esteemed after his death that his usurping successors in the monarchy continued with the building. It will be familiar to most in the UK for the annual Christmas Eve service of nine lessons and carols, broadcast on radio and TV. Others will find plenty of websites. The chapel of Pembroke College can claim to be special as well, albeit in a different way. It was Christopher Wren’s first commission. [Could it be significant that his uncle was Bishop of Ely?] He is better known as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The Cam
The Cam
At Cambridge you have plenty of choice. You could spend a fair sum if you go and visit all the colleges that charge for admittance, but at least two free ones are thoroughly enjoyable. These are Pembroke, which in addition to the chapel mentioned above, has some excellent gardens and Trinity Hall [as opposed to Trinity College where you pay], which actually lets you look at the river Cam without paying.
It’s no bad idea to go to the far side of the Cam for a distant view of the Backs.
As stated above, you would gain from spending a bit of time at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Otherwise just wander about – you’ll enjoy it.

Norman arches in nave, Ely
Norman arches in nave, Ely
We had B&B at a place Guy had found at Littleport, one stop by train from Ely. Given the relative cost of accommodation in Cambridge and Ely, this was a good idea.
However I can’t resist a bit of fun here. The town has a Harley Trail; Harley as in Harley-Davidson. Don’t fly off the handle, American friends, nobody claims he lived in Littleport.

Was he born there, then?

Well, no, he was born in America. His father lived here once though.

Ah, so we can see his house?

Well, no, it’s not standing any more. However there’s a pub where somebody called Harley, who was involved in a riot, was caught and he was later hanged.

Ah, fine, a relative of course?

Well – we’re working on finding a connection.

No doubt it’s a fine trail!

Other recommendations:
Ely Cathedral
Ely Cathedral
Oliver Cromwell, the Protector during most of the 17th century interregnum, lived in a house adjoining the Tourist Information Office in Ely. It’s particularly well geared to school parties but anybody who doesn’t know a lot about Cromwell would be well advised to visit.

Published on Saturday February 5th, 2005

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Sun, Feb 06 2005 - 09:04 AM rating by mistybleu

David, another good report. I like the reference to Harley, very comical.



Sun, Feb 06 2005 - 05:59 AM rating by marianne

Hi david,
When is your birthday?

Sun, Feb 06 2005 - 04:59 AM rating by britman

Great report on the historical background. I believe that there is some good nightlife too and believe me the pubs are excellent, The Eagle and The Live and Let Die are superb both to eat in and drink in. Around Cambridgeshire are some wonderful villages too and of course in Ely the Saturday market is excellent!

Sat, Feb 05 2005 - 08:11 PM rating by magsalex

Great report- good to see more on the UK.

Sat, Feb 05 2005 - 04:13 PM rating by ravinderkumarsi

excellent report

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