Continuing his journey up the A10, Travis Elborough takes the number 9 bus back in time to eel pie, puritanical hats, and civil disobedience.
Leaving the pub we spotted what looked like a small pink doll’s house on the carpark wall. It turned out to be one of those mini-libraries where people donate books that they’ve read, or failed to read. James Patterson seemed popular here. Or unpopular, as several of his thrillers were stacked up inside the box. Walking back down the High Street to the bus stop and crossing Butt Lane, we saw a couple of pick-and-go hire electric scooters and a bike lined up on the pavement, as if eagerly awaiting their next riders. In his latter years Syd Barrett was often to be seen cycling about Cambridge on his mother’s bike, its wicker basket usually full of shopping. I only ever saw the grainy photographs of such cycling trips that were sometimes published in tabloid newspapers to illustrate the dangers of going bald, getting middle-aged and wearing double-denim. And in addition probably something or other about mind-altering drugs. The lyrics to ‘Bike’, the exuberantly childish closing track of Piper at the Gates of Dawn predictably enough popped into my head and I found myself checking to see if this bike had indeed ‘got a basket’ (yes), ‘a bell that rings’ (not quite sure) and ‘things to make it look good’ (sadly, no).
We arrived at the bus stop just as the Number 9 (and branded the ‘Cloud 9 bus’) was pulling up. In numerology the number 9 is the last of the cardinal (i.e. single digit) numbers and is said to represent the ending of one cycle of life and the beginning of another and is associated with wisdom and self-knowledge, even enlightenment. As a materialist I don’t believe a word of this stuff. But it is also the same number of bus that Cliff Richard and The Shadows drive across Europe in the 1963 pop musical Summer Holiday. So I boarded the bus, which was an enormous double-decker, and rather like a cross-continental coach and painted a metallic shade of purple that was more headache than haze, willing this journey to result in an adventure and a revelation or two. One came rapidly enough. The single fare to Ely, admittedly a journey of some 12 miles, was £5. By comparison, a single bus fare in London is capped at £1.65 no matter how far you go, while you can also make multiple journeys throughout the day in the capital for just £4.95. Buses, quite simply, cost more at this end of the A10 than they do at the other.
The bus was far from full, but we opted to head to the top deck anyway to enjoy the view, and reaching the top of the stairs discovered that there was just a single man, youngish and dressed all in black and wearing headphones, sitting up there on the seat right at the far back. The front seat was therefore free and demanded to be taken. For, as everyone surely knows, sitting at the very front with the window framing an open view of the road ahead, is the closest you can get to the experience of driving the bus yourself. Though to allow Liz to film the road, I sat down on the left hand seat and for a second I entertained the idea that this was a Greyhound bus, and that we were embarking on a Beat Generation road trip to Chicago rather than a jaunt up the A10 to Ely.
That ridiculous idea vanished almost instantly when the bus drew by another venerable-looking village pub with Tudorbethan beams, this one called the Waggon and Horses, and I realised that our route might be skirting those of stagecoaches centuries earlier. Thomas DeQuincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, once wrote about the fashion for young Regency bucks to eschew the comforts of the carriage and travel outside and open to the elements on the top of mail coaches instead. And lurching through Milton at this elevated height and actually at some speed now, I could see the appeal. But I also could only ponder how arduous a journey through the marshy fens must once have been. As we moved forward along the A10 the names of the neighbouring districts seemed to pull us further back in time. Horningsea, Clayhithe. Landbeach, Waterbeach all spoke of a life that was far more aquatic. An era when the Isle of Ely was literally an island famed and named for its eels and much of the country hereabouts was waterlogged and a maze of fever-ridden swamps, river courses, islets and reed beds, until the Dutch engineer Vermuyden was hired to begin draining the fens in the seventeenth century. Our bus, however, increasingly appeared to be obeying the call of something more serpentine than Roman, because it kept darting off the A10 to eddy around side roads and disappear off in strange loops and circle back on itself.
The horse-drawn omnibus (named after ‘Omnès Omnibus’, a pun on the Latin words meaning ‘Everything for Everybody’) was a French invention and introduced to London by the Bloomsbury coach maker George Shillibeer, who’d worked in Paris, in 1829. Two years earlier Shillibeer had been commission by the then newly established Newington Academy of Girls, a Quaker school in what is now Stoke Newington Church Street, to build a large coach along Parisian omnibus lines to carry pupils from the school to the Quaker meeting house in Gracechurch Street. Which means it’s most likely that the prototype of the London omnibus trundled out of Stoke Newington loaded with Quakers (the faith, incidentally, of Barrett’s parents and the tradition in which young Roger was raised) and down to the City on the A10. This journey was to be memorialised in a poem written by a Quaker gentleman called Joseph Pease in the lines that ran:
The straight path of Truth the dear Girls keep their feet in,
And ah! it would do your heart good, Cousin Anne,
To see them arriving at Gracechurch Street Meeting,
All snugly packed up, twenty-five in a van.
Though, it was the ability of buses, over more the static electric trams and trolleybuses, to head off the straight and narrow and into enclaves of an ever-expanding suburbia (a suburbia that Shillibeer’s first horse buses had played no small part in creating, and think of Mr Pooter in The Laurels in Holloway as the archetypal Victorian omnibus commuter) that made them a more middle class means of transport. A status it lost once private car-ownership increased. Mrs Thatcher famously once quipped that a man of 30 on a bus must count himself a failure. Whereas I’ve always considered not owning a car and not having driven one myself since 1997 as some kind of achievement. And alas it has been over two decades since I was 30.
Still, the longer we were on our meandering number 9 the more disorientated we became about where exactly we were going. An added cause of the confusion was pace we were travelling at. The bus was often hurtling along, which came as a surprise as we’d expected something rather more leisurely. The vista was certainly low, lush and green (and the grass here, contra Dave Gilmour, really couldn’t have got much greener) and wide open dreamy skies were topped by clouds that flitted about overhead as if on fast-forward mode. But once out of the genteel outlying villages, it again became quite Ballardian, with ceaseless roads and roundabouts stretching out to endless destinations, and what must once have been farmland dotted with research and business complexes that looked like beached space ports. From Jupiter or Saturn, possibly. The roads were largely denuded of cyclists or any pedestrians and solar panels were a notable absence on the roofs of the various buildings, some ancient, others very modern indeed, as we whizzed past. Which seemed odd in the light of the prevalence of sunlight overhead and what I have observed elsewhere on the south coast.
Approaching Ely itself we were faced with a slew of car garages and motor showrooms, and the delineation between the city and its suburbs was confusing enough to compel us to go downstairs and seek advice from the driver about exactly where we should get off. He told us to stay on a little longer, which we dutifully did. Deposited in Ely proper, we beat a path to the cathedral, whose spire we had observed from some distance on the bus and confirmed its singular presence in the low-lying surroundings. The cathedral, whose nave, aisles and main transepts date back to the Normans, has its origins in an monastic retreat founded in 673 AD by Etheldreda, the daughter of the King of the East Angles. The remoteness and isolation of the isle recommend it as a spot for spiritual contemplation far from the material world. As a young princess, Etheldreda had been extremely vain and was apparently ‘inordinately fond of jewels, especially necklaces’. God had chosen to punish her for this vanity by making her neck swell up and compelling her to wear ribbons instead. Following her sainthood, ribbons were sold in commemoration on her saint’s day at the St Etheldreda’s Fair. Over time this became shortened to St Audrey’s Fair and the ribbons dubbed ’T’Audrey’s laces’ – which eventually became corrupted to ‘tawdry’ to mean something worthless or cheap.
No one could describe Ely cathedral as tawdry. It stood before us, reaching up to the heavens, tall, majestic and Gothic and I held my cassette copy of The Division Bell up in front of me and pressed play on my Walkman and listened to the bell-ringing intro of ‘High Hopes’ in lieu of any coming from the cathedral itself. Glancing from cassette cover to cathedral and back again, I could only scratch my head trying to work out where on earth Storm might have taken his photograph from. Nothing in the vicinity seemed to offer any clues. Though seeing an empty shop in a prime location on the cathedral precinct, formerly a branch of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill chain that suffered a Covid-related financial collapse in 2021, brought us down to a more worldly plane. As did the presence nearby on the cathedral lawns of a cannon decorated with blue and yellow bands, the corn and sky colours of the Ukrainian flag. Its barrel too was stuffed with artificial flowers. A one-time weapon had been transformed into a symbol of support for the Ukrainian people fighting against the Russian invasion. The blooms in the barrel seemed vaguely reminiscent of those anti-Vietnam protestors poked in rifles wielded by the military police, in the late 1960s ‘flower power’ era of Syd and co. But I was also struck that it was in the aftermath of another war in the Crimea, the one that saw England, France, Sardinia and Ottoman Turkey take on Czarist Russia between 1853 and 1856 and that gave us the cardigan, the balaclava and awful lot of pubs called The Alma, that spent cannons were brought back as souvenirs of victory and put on display in public parks.
As with present conflict in Ukraine, the price of grain rose sharply during the Crimean War as Russia blocked imports from the region. But thinking about Ukraine and the cost of living crisis, another earlier event in Ely’s history seemed to have even greater contemporary resonances. For in the summer of 1816 with the price of a quarter of wheat jumping from 52 shillings at the beginning of the year to 76 shillings by that May, following the passing of the Tory Corn Law of 1815 that restriction foreign imports of grain, food riots broke out in Littleport and Ely. A regiment of Hanoverian mercenaries in the government’s pay was dispatched to quell the disturbances. Twenty-four men were arrested and imprisoned in Ely gaol. Five were subsequently hanged, five others transported to Australia for life and the rest given various custodial sentences. Current day Ely looked an unlikely site of such civil disobedience.
Thoughts of another conflict, one that pitted parts of the country and whole families against one another and that in its day was just as divisive and far more deadly than Brexit, were triggered by seeing a sign that directed us to Oliver Cromwell’s house. It amused us to find the former home of the Parliamentarian leader of the New Model Army responsible for the beheading of Charles I in 1649, decked out in union flag bunting, presumably in honour of the Diamond Jubilee. In front of the house, a large-ish Jacobean mansion in keeping with Cromwell’s status as a local landowner, member of Parliament for Huntingdon and Governor of Ely, were two life-size model figures, a man and a woman in his and hers Puritan dress. The stovepipe hat and pointed shoes for him and the prim bonnet and pinafore frock for her. Though the woman’s expression, oddly, appeared more come hither than get behind me Satan. The paintwork on both the models was showing severe signs of ageing. The man’s nose was quite badly chipped and more suggestive of heavy cocaine use than banning Christmas and closing Ely cathedral for seventeen years, the latter things Cromwell himself did do.
We gave a tour of the house a miss, preferring a spot of less puritanical retail therapy and visited a couple of charity shops, of which there are quite a few. One had nearly a whole rack of bridal gowns, white and lacy, but arguably perhaps not quite so virginal now that they are on the second-hand market. I couldn’t decide if their impressive number meant Ely was a shower of broken marriages or the city was simply in thrall to the declutter-er Marie Kondo. Though Ely could almost be said to have been founded on a broken marriage. Etheldreda took a vow of chastity and left her husband, Egfrith, the son of the King of Northumberland, to enter a convent. After twelve years he attempted to take her back again but she evaded him on the road, thanks to some divine intervention or other, and decided to put as much distance as possible between them by setting up her own order in out of the way Ely.
Virginal white isn’t really my colour so I took a rain check on the gowns and instead bought two books from a display dedicated to publications of ‘local interest’. One by another Barrett, W H Barrett and entitled A Fenman’s Story which came larded with a quote from The Guardian praising his previous effort as ‘well-sown with humour about first and last things, tangy, gnarled, but straight as good spit.’ The other was Cambridgeshire Country Recipes, compiled by Pippa Gomar, which later turned out to contain a recipe for eel pie and maintained that the ‘monks at Ely exchanged 4,000 eels a year for stone to build Ely Cathedral.’
Feeling bookish, our next port of call was the Toppings & Company Booksellers, an independent bookshop whose address at number 9 Ely High Street conveniently chimed numerologically with our quest for enlightenment on the A10. We left enthused but a little tired and hungry and decided to connect with Ely’s watery side by making for one of its riverside pubs for supper before catching the train back to London. The Romans, responsible for the A10, also cut a canal named the Car Dyke which connected the River Cam and the Great Ouse and enabled water-borne traffic to be conveyed from Cambridgeshire to Lincoln and York. Rivers, like seas and roads, are connectors as well as dividers, and sipping wine, that most Roman of drinks, beside the Great Ouse and watching boats and paddle-boarders drift by on the water, we felt intimately linked to this place, as fellow residents of tributaries of another part of the A10. But then maybe, by this point, that was just the wine talking.
Read Part 1 of this piece, taking in the A10’s ley lines, Chinese takeaways and automotive detritus, here.
Described by The Guardian as ‘one of the country’s finest pop culture historians’, Travis Elborough has been a freelance author, broadcaster and cultural commentator for over two decades now. Elborough’s books include ‘Through the Looking Glasses: The Spectacular Life of Spectacles’ and ‘Atlas of Vanishing Places’, winner of Edward Stanford Travel Book Award in 2020. Visit his Bookshop.org page here.