Poets House Hotel, Ely


From the depths of the bathtub you could be anywhere. Anywhere regal, at least. Anywhere with freestanding bathtubs in the middle of the bedroom, copper edges rising so high that when you sink into it you can’t see the bed, or the door, or the view of the cathedral from the windows. You can just see the Noble Isle foam, your feet sliding out of it, and an oil painting on the wall in front of you of – I don’t know, somebody doing something, indistinct in the rising steam.

So from inside the bubble of Poet’s House, Ely can roll on beyond your windows without disturbing you. A suite scattered with welcome profiteroles platters, fruit dishes, room service menus and flatscreen TV would make it easy to ignore the outside world all weekend.

But the hotel’s hard to miss if you’re visiting Ely, built into three Grade II listed townhouses on one of the small cathedral city’s most central – still not busy – streets.

Poets House exterior

For a start, it’s directly opposite the cathedral, which is one of the city’s claims to fame – both in its own right as a ridiculously imposing building, and for the fact it keeps Ely star-studded with Hollywood names on the regular. The Netflix series The Crown filmed the wedding of Philip and Elizabeth here, and other regal filming credits include Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The King’s Speech and Kurzel’s 2015 version of Macbeth. Less obvious matches for the cathedral’s stately grandeur – Assassin’s Creed and 2013 sci-fi crash-and-burn, Jupiter Ascending.

And if treading in the footsteps of Hollywood isn’t what gets you out of bed – or bathtub – Ely’s not short of other reasons to explore beyond the walls of Poets House. The second smallest city in England, as Ely’s believed to be, is punching well above its weight and size in the handmade chocolate, old school sweet shops and craft ale departments.

We start Saturday with big talk about long walks along the river, and use that to justify mining the Poet’s House breakfast menu thoroughly. Between the buffet bar, hot dishes and endless tea, we prepare ourselves for a day that turns out to be in no way rugged enough to need a three-course breakfast to set you up for it.

Poets House Bar

Everything about an Ely Saturday feels gentle and simple to navigate – and without making any firm decisions or looking at a map we marvel at the outside of the cathedral, then the inside of the cathedral. Then the inside of a nearby chocolate shop. The high street’s scattered with old fashioned sweet shops and coffeeshops, and wandering through those takes us as far as the market square, where the Saturday market’s a jumble of gluten free cupcakes, artisan pork pies and stalls selling antique mirrors.

So Ely just happens to us, gently, without any real effort on our side. Reaching the other side of the market we’re almost at the river and in a really token gesture towards justfying the mountaineer’s-size breakfast we had, we go for a short loop of a walk along the banks of the Ely. On the way back it takes us along the Hereward Way — named for the 11th century outlaw Hereward the Wake, who made this part of the Fens his base for his resistance against the Normans — and brings us back into the city.

And to the door of 3 at 3 Real Ale Cafe, a small corner-building cramming in a beer garden, coffeeshop, homemake cakes, crisp sandwiches and an enormous collection of locally-brewed craft beer. If we didn’t have a reservation for dinner at Poet’s House – and a plan to hit their Study bar for a cocktail first – we’d be here eating crisp sandwiches till sunset. But we turn back towards the hotel, carrying a lot more chocolate and Honey Panther beer – chosen mainly for the Anchorman, Sex-Pantherish label but actually: good – than we left with that morning.

Poets House dining room

If you want to be practical about this, there are good, rational reasons to choose this town and this hotel for a getaway. Train tickets are cheap, the journey’s short and – if you work in the City – you can be away from your desk at 6 pm and drawing up to a cathedral-view hotel on a tranquil street by 8 pm. With direct trains from Liverpool Street station, this is a relatively small amount of effort for a really effective cocoon. And prices are relatively low at the Poets House restaurant for the quality of cooking – a menu of mostly-classics with inventive flourishes coming in at £30 for three courses. Our tour through the evening offering at Poet’s House includes a brilliantly rich crab ballotine and venison with a juniper-crust that we meant to share but end up fighting, politely, over.

That’s still in our future, though. Somewhere in an hour’s time, downstairs, is a powerfully strong martini in the Poets House bar, and a table booked for dinner, and maybe a nightcap looking out over the courtyard.

But for now it’s just the bathtub, and the foam, and the steam rising.

A Master Double room with bed & breakfast starts at £180 per room per night, and a three course dinner menu in the restaurant is £30 a head. Poet’s House, 40, St. Mary’s Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4EY. 01353 887777. Website.