The historic Fenland town of Ely occupies the largest island in the Cambridgeshire Fens. Known for its magnificent cathedral, beautiful rivers and agriculture, the city is one of the most beloved places in the county.
But the history of the city and its strange name have been relatively forgotten since the 17th century. Until that time his name was obvious, but now he bears little resemblance to his origins.
The “Isle of Ely” is so called because the city was once completely surrounded by water, so much so that it was only accessible by boat. This island was completely isolated from the rest of the county in a way that it is not today.
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Paying a small fee to a boat driver would have whisked you away to the remote town with the tinkling of its cathedral bell from the Fens. Ely is still susceptible to flooding today but, before the waterlogged marshes were drained in the 17th century, water completely separated the town from the rest of Cambridgeshire.
The vast expanse of water also brought profitable trade which influenced the name of the town for hundreds of years. With the waterlogged Fens and river access, Ely was known, from the time the Vikings roamed East Anglia, as ‘The Isle of Eels’.
In Anglo-Saxon times, when all of East Anglia was under Viking rule, the town was called ēlġē in Old Northumbrian, meaning ‘District of Eels’. For those living in the area today, this will certainly come as no shock. Ely’s connection to eels is well known and celebrated each year at the Ely Eel Festival.
Surrounded by water and marshes, the residents of the small, isolated town found themselves in a very good location where there was a profitable amount of eels. In fact, there were so many that the town became East Anglia’s premier location for eel fishing.
Even after the waterlogged Fens were drained and Ely was no longer an island, eel fishing remained hugely popular. Today, Ely’s direct history with eel fishing is celebrated through the annual Ely Eel Day, the Eel Festival and the Eel Trail which leads visitors through the city.