In addition to Ely's rich history, charm and beauty it is also a place that prides itself in hosting a vast range of events aimed at residents and visitors alike. Ely is very proud of its connection with eels and it is thought that the name Ely is derived from the Isle of Eels when Ely was surrounded by water and marshland.
Eels are still caught in the Great River Ouse although only one commercial catcher still remains, Peter Carter. Peter is a well-known character in Ely and quite a celebrity having appeared on television many times. Having lived all his life along the River Ouse as did his father and grandfather before him, Peter has always had a strong interest in river life. Historically eels were part of the local staple diet as well as a valuable source of income. Clients also came from London with the popularity of jellied eels although today this is a dwindling market. Smoked eels, now considered a delicacy, can be purchased on Ely's award winning Farmers Market and dishes such as eel stew and eel pie can be found regularly on the menu of Ely's Lamb Hotel as well as a few of the other restaurants in the area.
What makes this trail special is that the story of a life of an eel has been very cleverly portrayed in five pieces of public art by Elizabeth Jane Grosse. As the commissioned artist for this project, Elizabeth first had to spend many hours researching eels and many conversations with Eel expert Sid were needed. Working with local schools the whole project has had a strong community input and this is reflected in the launch day where the schools and other local groups are heavily involved.
The trail starts at Oliver Cromwell's House, which also houses the City's Tourist Information Centre. This is a very fitting start as not only can the trail map be picked up from here but Mrs Cromwell regularly used eels in her cooking and copies of her eel recipes are available from the Kitchen in the House. To mark the first piece of art a circular bench has been installed around one of the trees outside Oliver Cromwell's House. Inscribed on the bench is Mrs Cromwell's recipe for stewed eel pie. The trail then takes you into the heart of the city centre passed many points of interest which the trail map clearly points out. The trail then takes you down to the Waterside to Ely's Babylon Gallery where the second piece of art is depicted in the glass door entrance off the river. The various pieces of glass depict the lifecycle of an eel showing the different shape, size and colours as the eel grows
Following the riverside the third piece of art on this trail cannot be missed. Eight stainless steel glavies or gleaves as they are sometimes known, which are spear like tools used by individual eel fishermen to catch eels in small numbers, are erected on the green outside Ely's premier conference venue The Maltings. The glaives are in the shape of an octagon, the same as the unique octagon roofline in Ely Cathedral.
The fourth piece of art is the yellow eel mosaic found in Jubilee Gardens. This impressive piece of work made from thousands of pieces of broken pottery that were excavated as part of the Time Team Visit in 2000 when Cambridge Archaeology explored the site prior to the landscaping of the gardens which were opened in 2002 The yellow eel shows the adult stage of the eel's life and by its snaking path the eel is depicted on its downhill journey towards the river.
The final piece of art takes you across to Ely's Cherry Hill Park where an impressive eel hive made from willow has been planted. Eels were commonly caught using hives made of willow which was an original industry on the River Ouse as far back as pre-Norman times. The eel hive, woven from living willow in the shape of a tunnel is 9 meters long and 2 meters high so it is possible to walk through.
As you walk around the trail to admire these wonderful pieces that link the heritage of Ely so well you need not fear that you will lose your way. The trail is marked by 70 way markers set in the ground with pictures of eels engraved into brass.
For further information about the Eel trail and other events in Ely and the district call Ely's Tourist Information Centre on 01353 662062.