I spent the month of March in England with my dear friend (who I met on my Camino last year), Michael and we did a mini-grand tour of England. There was lots of sightseeing, shows and football games, but there was even more eating and drinking as we explored pubs and restaurants of all varieties including an amazing formerly Michelin starred restaurant on the Welsh border.
From our base in Ely, the first part of our grand tour took us around the East of England, a low-lying, agriculturally fertile and mostly rural part of the country. The university city of Cambridge has many fine historical buildings, narrow cobbled streets and some great pubs and restaurants, while the wild North Norfolk coast, changed over time by erosion, shifting sands and the build-up of salt marsh, offers expansive beaches, cosy pubs and gastronomic delights from both the sea and the land.
The three counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk are sometimes referred to as East Anglia, a historical reference to the area’s Anglo-Saxon history. With no major cities aside from Norwich, Cambridge and Peterborough, the area is characterized by many small towns, each surrounded by tiny rural villages. Food production and processing remains an important part of the local economy and farmers markets, farm shops, micro-breweries and delis selling local produce are abundant.
Located 14 miles north of Cambridge and about 80 miles from London, the historic city of Ely is home to one of the most magnificent cathedrals in all of England. With a population of around 20,000, Ely is one of Britain’s smallest cities and the cathedral, dating back to the 12th century, dominates both the city itself and the skyline from miles across the Cambridgeshire Fens. People often ask why such a vast church was built in such a small place, but the truth is that the Cathedral came first. When it was built, Ely was just a small settlement. The city grew up around the Cathedral.
A visit here is a must for anyone who comes to Ely. It’s a nice stop for a time of quiet reflection or to marvel at the magnificent architecture, painted ceilings, stained glass and marble floors. You can see the famous Octagon Tower and lantern plus the many sculptures or take a short walk around the monastic buildings and then drop into the Almonry where you can enjoy morning coffee, lunch or traditional afternoon tea.
Ely’s location on the River Great Ouse makes for some idyllic walks as well as the perfect setting for waterside eating and drinking. The Cutter Inn serves a smooth pint of Woodforde’s Wherry, a fine beer from Norfolk, and offers a great burger, fries and slaw, perfect for an alfresco summer snack.
Away from the river, the Lamb Inn and the Kings Arms provide wholesome pub fare, while there are several good Indian restaurants to try too. We ventured into Le Spice on Fore Hill the night I arrived in England. Jet lag and the desire to sleep was quickly dissipated when the menu arrived.
We covered two tables with small plates for everything we ordered. Here, I was introduced to Peshwari Naan, a sweet Naan baked with bits of dried fruit that put my typical Garlic Naan to shame. The samosas were packed with vegetables and savory spices, but made with a thin rice paper versus the thick dough that is usually used, making them exceptionally light. Served with the condiments of pickle, raita and a tangy mango chutney, they were devoured quickly.
As a rule of thumb, I prefer Coconut rice, while Michael prefers the typical basmati Pilao rice. But on the vegetable and meat dishes, we completely agree…Sag Paneer, a sautéed spinach with large chunks of homemade cottage cheese; Aloo Chat, spiced potatoes and chick peas; Aloo Gobi Bhajee, potatoes and cauliflower in a thick spicy sauce and Fresh Bhindi, okra with mustard seeds, capsicum, tomato and onion.
The chick peas were some of the hottest I have ever tasted and while I do enjoy a bit of heat, these were on par with wasabi peas!
My Chicken Tikka Masala was a beautiful shade of persimmon with a streak of cream in the bowl. Mildly spiced with tender chunks of chicken, this was the perfect anti-spice to my burning mouth!
Michael enjoyed their Rogon Josh , a beautifully spiced and aromatic lamb curry.
Needless to say, we took home a doggie bag and had a feast the next day for lunch as well!
Right in the center of town, The Lamb, a pub and hotel is a former 14th Century coaching inn. Now it hosts 31 guest rooms and a full service pub that is very popular with the locals. On the night we tried it, an unusual and atypical bar brawl was erupting just as we entered; a surly, obviously overindulged patron was having very loud words with the barmaid and was quickly ejected. It was quite exciting for this otherwise quiet venue.
This”pub”, with a large bar in the front is actually very un-pub like, with a beautifully adorned dining room and brighter lighting.
We shared a platter of tasty bites including Stilton-stuffed mushrooms, potato wedges, garlic ciabatta, honey and mustard glazed mini Cumberland sausages and chicken wings.
Michael’s Ultimate burger, a stack of two beef burgers, cheese, bacon and a giant beer-battered onion ring was far better than my supposed award-winning hand-battered haddock, with mushy peas and tartar sauce. I found one too many bones and combined with leaving the skin on, it just was not a fish and chips I enjoyed. But the Chocolate fudge brownie topped with clotted cream ice cream and a drizzle of chocolate sauce made up for my lackluster main course.
Just down the street from the Lamb Inn is the Ely Visitor’s Center which is housed in the Oliver Cromwell home on St Mary’s Street. Known as the Lord Protector of England, he lived in Ely for 10 years. Today the house, the only surviving former Cromwell residence other than Hampton Court in London, has been recreated to show how his family would have lived in the mid 17th Century. It’s also supposed to be haunted so it’s quite a fun tour to take!
(Elizabeth Cromwell’s seat- with a recipe for Roasted Eels)
Thursday is Market Day in Ely with over 60 stalls selling fruits, vegetables, cheeses, flowers and more. Every other Saturday, the Craft & Collectibles market is added to this regular market making it even a larger venue for shopping.
On my next trip, I plan to visit the Ely Museum, located in the Bishop’s Gaol in the city center. The Museum, a history center for the Isle of Ely and the Fens features original prison cells, fossils and Roman remains and spans Ely’s history from ancient times to the present. I also may get the chance to attend the Ely Folk Festival, an annual weekend bijou folk and roots music festival. We will see!
In the meantime, tomorrow I’ll be talking about our next stop…Cambridge!