Perched on a mound of clay above the River Great Ouse, the attractive little town of ELY is famous for its fine Norman cathedral, a towering structure visible for miles across the flat fenland landscape. It's easy to see the town on a day-trip from Cambridge, but Ely does make a pleasant night's stop in its own right.
Ely literally means "eel island" and was to all intents and purposes a true island until the draining of the fens in the seventeenth century. Up 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 always been associated with Hereward, which is really rather ridiculous as Ely is, above all else, a Norman, ecclesiastical town.