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Tour Director

  • Discover the landscape, industry and character of the Fens during medieval times, from a base in historical Ely opposite its cathedral

  • Explore some of the artistic and architectural treasures of the region, from the angel roof at St Wendreda’s Church to the Octagon at Ely Cathedral, a masterpiece of medieval engineering

  • Learn about the role and growth of monasticism in the Fens, from its turbulent beginnings to the Reformation

The atmospheric and remote Fens and their borderlands were one of the principal cradles of English monasticism, largely due to hermitages of Anglo-Saxon saints. By the Middle Ages, the Fenlands were a prosperous region, with several arterial waterways, fertile farmland and plentiful fish and wildfowl. This tour charts the religious landscape of the Fens, through visits to key churches, cathedrals and abbeys.


Our itinerary focuses on the long, broad history of monasticism in the region, from early Saxon foundations, through Benedictine reform and architecture of the high Middle Ages, to late medieval challenges in the aftermath of the Black Death and subsequent spread of Lollardy. We will also see signs of the Dissolution and subsequent Puritan turn, embodied by Oliver Cromwell, whose former home in Ely stands opposite our hotel.


With origins dating back to 673AD, when the Anglo Saxon princess St Etheldreda founded the first monastery on site, Ely has been a cathedral priory since 1109. Following layers of rebuilding and restoration, this immense structure is now home to architectural marvels including the awe-inspiring 14th century Octagon Tower, topped by a remarkable wood-framed lantern and decorated with painted angels. We can trace subsequent historical events here too: the now light and airy Lady Chapel, for example, bears the scars of the Reformation. We will spend a whole day exploring the cathedral, including its former monastic buildings and the fascinating Stained Glass Museum, the only collection of its kind in the UK.


Our tour also includes a visit to Peterborough, which became a cathedral after the Dissolution and showcases wonderful Norman architecture behind an Early English Gothic façade. Alongside these larger sites, we will explore the remains of smaller monasteries: namely Crowland, founded on the site of St Guthlac’s hermitage, and Denny, founded as a cell of Ely but successively a house of the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller and Franciscan nuns.


St Wendreda’s Church in March, with its stunning double hammerbeam roof complete with 120 carved angels, will be a particular highlight; while a visit to Isleham Priory Church, once the property of a French mother house, offers an interesting opportunity to learn about adaptive reuse, the church having been converted to agricultural use in the 18th and 19th centuries.


We also look forward to an excursion to Wicken Fen, the National Trust’s oldest nature reserve and one of Europe’s most important wetlands, to learn about the original landscape of the Fens before drainage; the abundance of wildlife the site supports; and the major conservation project, ‘Wicken Fen Vision’, currently underway to secure the future of the Fenland landscape.


Moving forward in time, our tour culminates in a morning talk exploring the life of Oliver Cromwell in Ely courtesy of expert Cambridge historian Dr David Smith, and a visit to Cromwell’s house in the city.


This tour will be based in the charming cathedral city of Ely, at the four-star Poets House Hotel & Restaurant, located in the heart of the historical city centre just a stone’s throw from the cathedral. Occupying elegant townhouses, the hotel offers comfortable, contemporary rooms and an excellent restaurant, where some of our dinners will be taken. We also hope to enjoy a dinner at the city’s Old Fire Engine House Restaurant & Gallery: based in a characterful Georgian house with a walled garden once home to Ely’s horse-drawn fire engine, the family-run restaurant now specialises in local, seasonal ingredients and recipes.

Tour Director Oliver Coulson, MA (Courtauld Institute), PhD (Brown University, USA), is an architectural historian with a special interest in medieval ecclesiastical and vernacular architecture. His research focuses on the relationship between religious devotion and artistic representation in late-medieval England. His doctoral thesis explores the impact of the Lollard heresy on material culture in the 15th century. Oliver has lectured on medieval art and architecture at conferences in the UK, USA and Europe. Before studying for his doctorate, he designed academic study tours on a range of subjects across Europe. He recently recorded a podcast episode with the European Review of History on entertainment and medieval history. Outside academia, his professional experience has included serving as Parliamentary Assistant to the Deputy Speaker. A native of East Anglia, Oliver is looking forward to sharing the region’s treasures with new and experienced visitors alike.

Tour Code

Included: accommodation based on sharing a twin or double bedded room, four breakfasts, three lunches, four dinners with water & coffee, excursions & admissions, gratuities & all taxes.

Not Included: travel insurance, double room for single use supplement £295.

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