Travel: Land of swamps and islands where Edmund lost his head: Rich with history, the Fens offer much more than the standard tour of Cambridge colleges, says Tony Kelly

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The Independent Travel
MOST people who come to Cambridge come fleetingly - day trippers arriving to 'do' the colleges - which is a pity. For the city is an ideal base from which to go further afield in East Anglia, to towns that are just as attractive but without the worldwide fame of the university.

You could start at Ely, 15 miles from Cambridge on the Ouse. Ely was founded in the seventh century by St Etheldreda who, after two unhappy marriages, became a nun and built her abbey on an island hilltop. Hereward the Wake defended the city against William the Conqueror, but the Normans won through and began their cathedral in 1081. The most impressive feature, the octagonal lantern, was added in 1322 at the same time as England's largest Lady Chapel. Look through a mirror at colourful biblical figures carved into the ceiling, some smiling, some grimacing, others grotesque, but all with vivid, childish expressions.

The cathedral caused a stir a few years back by being the first to charge for admission, though you can avoid this by going on a Sunday. Beside the cathedral is the largest surviving collection of English monastic architecture, most of it used by the King's School, founded by Henry VIII to provide for '24 boys destitute of the help of friends'; the tradition lives on in 24 'Queen's Scholars'. Nearby is the house where Oliver Cromwell collected tithes for 11 years, now a museum and tourist information centre.

The Stained Glass Museum in the cathedral's north triforium has a collection ranging from 1240 to 1992. In medieval times stained glass was 'the poor man's Bible', used to instruct illiterates in the scriptures; the examples from this era give delightful glimpses into domestic and agricultural life. Look for the 15th-century roundel of Reynard the Fox, depicting a fox in clerical garb preaching to a flock of chickens as he gathers them into his cloak. This wicked anti-clerical satire was found in a Northamptonshire church.

The 20th-century collection shows religious and secular stained glass still flourishing. See Karl Parsons' 'Hammer and Tongs', in which two medieval characters fight with, literally, a hammer and some tongs. Puzzle over 'Commerce', commissioned by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. And smile at Moira Forsyth's 1930 'Prodigal Son'. Pictures show a cowboy leaving home to drink and dance with beaded women.

Ely is at the heart of the Fens, a low-lying area of wetlands and windmills and roads lifted above the fields like causeways. The Fens were flooded after the Ice Age and for 4,000 years Ely was virtually an island (its name means 'eel island') and the cathedral, towering over the swamps, is known as the 'Ship of the Fens'. The peat and clay bogs provided free food, fuel and shelter to anyone brave enough to build their huts on patches of dry land, but eventually the national demand for agriculture led to the Fens being drained.

The Fenlanders resisted - in 1637 William Kempe - who once famously danced from London to Norwich - described them as 'uncivil and envious to all others' - but drainage was imposed, carried out by 'undertakers', so called because they undertook the task, though it could be because they presided over a death. Now the Fens, lying several feet below the Ouse, face the constant threat of flooding and have to be protected by the continual pumping of water back into the rivers. As recently as 1947 Ely briefly became an island once more.

To see the Fens as they were, visit Wicken Fen, England's oldest nature reserve, where the National Trust maintains traditional practices on a rare area of undrained fenland. Peat is cut, reed and sedge are harvested and used for building or sold for thatch. A three-quarter-mile boardwalk trail gives a useful introduction, but better still is the network of paths (many closed in winter) criss-crossing the 600-acre site. You see the remains of 'bog oaks', preserved for four millennia in peat which also entombed beavers, bears and pelicans. If you are lucky you see butterflies, birds and moles. You can walk beside Wicken Lode, the canal that was once used to transport peat, clay, ducks and eels to market.

My favourite day out from Cambridge is Bury St Edmunds, a Suffolk market town whose elegant Regency streets ooze prosperity. Bury, as it is known, was once the power-base of the region. The eponymous Edmund was brought over from Saxony, aged 14, to be King of East Anglia, then murdered by Danes 13 years later in 869AD. Mourners searching for his decapitated head were led into a forest by a howling wolf; they found the animal cradling the head as if it were her child. A shrine was built and later housed in the 11th-century abbey. All that remains are some ruins beside the River Lark in carefully tended gardens.

Bury is still a centre of religious life - in 1913 the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was created and the medieval parish church had to be transformed into a cathedral. Extensions have been carried out tastefully, but there is still no tower and the Norman Abbey Gate on Angel Hill remains the more impressive sight.

An hour is long enough for a walking architectural tour through Norman flint and Elizabethan timber to Georgian brick and Victorian Bath stone. Stop outside Lloyd's Chemist in Abbeygate Street to admire the medieval carved beams in the window; then visit The Nutshell, England's smallest pub, where six customers make a crowd. The ivy-covered Angel Hotel featured in Pickwick Papers and Dickens gave readings in the nearby Athenaeum.

The oldest building is Moyses Hall, dating from 1180 and at times a private house, inn, wool hall, workhouse, prison, police station, fire station, railway office, synagogue and, since 1899, Museum of Local History. Another museum opened this year in the Manor House, a restored Georgian mansion. The attraction here is the collection of clocks and watches. I was staring at a 1650 Augsburg 'automaton' - a gilt and ebony lion, which rolls its eyes as the clock ticks and sticks its tongue out on the hour - when I heard chiming all around and realised it was midday. A longcase clock played 'Rule Britannia' before being drowned out by a huge church bell.

The smell of hops hung temptingly in the air outside Greene King's Victorian brewery as draymen raised sacks to the loft on an ancient pulley. I booked an afternoon tour and arrived to find a busload of regulars from two pubs in Kent. The female guides poured coffee and flirted with the men, who had already been drinking for several hours. 'Any of you been round before?' asked Lydia. 'He is round,' one replied, pointing at the fattest man in the group.

Photos showed the Regency Theatre Royal across the road as a dilapidated barrel-store; thankfully it has now been restored and is showing plays again. Lydia led us through the process by which barley becomes malt and eventually beer, encouraging us to stick our heads into foul-smelling vats and putting up with increasingly sexist banter. She knew that the men were only there for the beer. At 4.00 we were let loose on the bar, all we could drink in an hour, together with sandwiches and sausage rolls. Pint followed pint as voices grew louder and cruder.

Lydia toured the room issuing car stickers. 'Have I given you one yet?' she asked the round gentleman.

'You can give me one any time, love. Can I have a sticker, too?'

Daniel Defoe wrote in 1723 that Bury was 'thronged with gentry, people of the best fashion and delightful conversation'. He obviously didn't take the brewery tour.

Things to see: Ely - Cathedral, open 7.30am-6.30pm daily. Admission charge Mon-Sat, pounds 2.60 per adult, 2 children free. Evensong 3.45pm Sun, 5.30pm weekdays (not Wed).

Stained Glass Museum, open Mar-Oct and all weekends, 10.30am-4pm, 12-3pm Sun. pounds 1.50.

Oliver Cromwell's House, open May-Sep 10am-6pm daily, Oct-Apr 10am-5.15pm Mon-Sat. Museum pounds 1.50.

Wicken Fen: Open daily. Traditional Fen cottage open Sundays from Apr-Oct, 2pm-5pm. pounds 2.50.

Guided walks on 10 July, 7 Aug, 4 Sep, 2 Oct. pounds 3.50 including tea. Book on 0353 720274.

Bury: Manor House Museum, open 10am-5pm Mon-Sat, 2pm-5pm Sun. Guided tours at 11am, 1pm, 3pm, Mon-Sat, 2.30pm and 4.30pm Sun. pounds 2.50; Moyses Hall, open 10am-5pm Mon-Sat, 2pm-5pm Sun. Free; Theatre Royal, open 10am-8pm Mon-Sat. Free; Greene King Brewery, tours at 2pm Mon-Thur. Book at Tourist Information Centre (0284 764667). pounds 2.50.

Events: Bury St Edmunds Festival, 13-29 May. Plays and concerts at Theatre Royal throughout the year. Information and Box Office, 0284 769505.

Accommodation: Cambridge - Details of accommodation from Tourist Information Centre (0223 322640).

Ely - Lamb Hotel, 0353 663574. Weekend breaks pounds 40 per person per night for dinner, B&B; Black Hostelry, medieval monks' inn beside cathedral. Double B&B pounds 45. Contact Mrs Green, 0353 662612.

B&Bs can be booked through Tourist Information Centre, 0353 662062.

Bury: Angel Hotel, 0284 753926. Breaks from pounds 59 per person per night for dinner, B&B; Chantry Hotel, Georgian listed building near brewery, 0284 767427. Double B&B pounds 90 for 2 nights. B&Bs - contact Tourist Information Centre, 0284 764667.

Where to eat: Ely - Dominiques, St Mary's Street, 0353 665011. French/English home cooking - soups, salads, snacks. Main courses pounds 3-pounds 6. Vegetarian meals. 3-course dinner pounds 13.50, Thur-Sat 7-9pm. No smoking.

Old Fire Engine House, Palace Green, 0353 662582. Traditional English food and art gallery. Main course pounds 10.80, 3 courses pounds 15. Open 12.30-2pm, 7.30-9pm daily.

Almonry, Cathedral gardens, open 10am-5pm daily. Teas, snacks. 3-course Sunday lunch, pounds 8.95.

Bury: Gabe's Bistro, Churchgate Street, 0284 764179. Main courses pounds 5-pounds 10. Vegetarian meals. Open Mon-Sat, 7-10.15pm.

Angel Hotel, 3-course lunch + coffee, pounds 12.95, guaranteed served within an hour]

Dog and Partridge, Crown Street, 0284 764792. Greene King pub beside brewery. Lunches from Mon-Sat.

(Photograph omitted)

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