Great Canal Journeys visit Cambridgeshire Fens

ely cathedral visited by great canal journeys

Gyles and Sheila are back on our screens, and in case you missed it you can catch up with their Great Canal Journey to Cambridge and the Fens by watching episode one of series 13 on All 4.

Actor Sheila Hancock and author and presenter Gyles Brandreth took over presenting the show in November 2020. (Read TVs Great Canal Journeys Has Two New Skippers). They were narrowboat novices at that point, but have since taken to cruising and steering canal boats with heart-warming humour and enthusiasm.

At the beginning of series 13 they started their journey in the town of March, where Fox narrowboats are based, and travelled along the old course of the River Nene to visit Emneth, then south down the Great Ouse to Ely Cathedral, and finished their trip in Cambridge, learning about the poet, Rupert Brook.

Early on in the journey Sheila was seriously impressed by the Fenland scenery; she loved the spaciousness of the panorama, “It’s all sky!” They learned that the sea level is still rising in the Fens, so it is inevitable that large areas, previously reclaimed from the sea, will eventually be underwater once more.

There were some pretty views of the village of Upwell before they arrived at Emneth to visit the vicarage. This was once home to Reverend Wilburt Audrey, author of the much-loved Thomas the Tank Engine books. The Reverend died in 1997 but Gyles and Sheila were invited in to chat to his daughter about the inspiration for the popular books.

Back on the River Ouse Gyles and Sheila were stunned by the view of Ely Cathedral across the Fens as they approached Ely. Ely was once an island, before the draining of the Fens, and the cathedral dates back to the 11th century. The inside of the cathedral is huge, and gloriously impressive. The programme showed the unique octagon lantern tower before a segment where Ely Cathedral Boy Choristers practiced their medieval Plain Song. The cathedral was built on the site of a monastery, founded by Etheldreda, a local Anglo Saxon princess. This episode explains that it may have taken one hundred years to build the current version of the cathedral.

Back on their canal boat, inspired by their visit to the cathedral, Gyles and Sheila had a thoughtful conversation about faith, god and their own mortality. It was fun to watch their affectionate friendship as Sheila teased Gyles about his fashion sense, and his habit of name-dropping celebrities’ names.

South of Ely the two friends met an artist and tried landscape painting. Although they both lacked confidence in their abilities they had a go anyway. In Cambridge Kings College “oozes history” said Gyles. It’s alumni include Rupert Brook, who in 1914 wrote the patriotic poem ‘The Soldier’. Gyles and Sheila checked out previous hand written drafts of the famous poem. Then they had cucumber sandwiches and tea at the vicarage, discussing the poet, who had tragically died aged only 27.

Finally Gyles and Sheila ended their trip by drinking Pimms in the sunshine, in an ancient meadow moored on the River Cam.

A cruise from March to Ely takes nine hours, and then Ely to Cambridge is about five hours cruise. Of course you can travel at your own leisurely pace and stop somewhere overnight along the way.

If you want to take your own great canal journey next year check availability now. We have some great holiday deals to enjoy. And you can order sandwiches and other treats to be waiting on board for you from Glam Grazing.

You may also like: How to Experience Some Great Canal Journeys from Your Own Home

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