What makes a place creative? The case of Ely

Last spring I announced a series of posts on the question of what makes a place creative. The first substantive post in that series (‘A walk down creativity street‘, 25 Mar 2012) considered the case of Trumpington Street in Cambridge, UK. This, the second, considers the case of the city of Ely.

Image used with grateful acknowledgement to Ely Cathedral Image Library.


Ely, Cambridgeshire, is located in an area of England known as the Fens – a large terrain of flat land reclaimed from what was once marshland. Ely’s centre stands on an outcrop of clay, raised slightly above the land the fens. 

Ely is a city. If that makes you imagine it as a big place, think again. Even though it has grown in recent years – the result of building new homes for commuters – its population still totals only 20,000 or so. Ely owes its city status not to its size, but to the fact that its cathedral forms the seat of a diocese. 

Photo (c) Frances Haynes


No place makes me feel more creative than Ely. To anyone who knows the city, that might not seem to require much exploration.

After all, the cathedral that dominates the city is in its own right a superb example of embodied creativity. And it is a home to many forms of creativity, notably in the form of a stained glass museum and a living tradition of music.

The image opposite exhibits creativity from three centuries – a 20th century sculpture on the wall, 19th century ceiling decoration, and the original Norman architecture.

Literary creativity is less evident, though I think both the lettering and the wording on the inscription below has a certain dignity. It certainly elicits respect for Mr Humphry Smith.

Photo (c) Frances Haynes


Yet while the cathedral, and the arts that it supports, certainly inspires me, that is not the whole story. To understand what I am responding to, when I say that I find Ely wonderfully creative, it is necessary to place the cathedral in a wider context – the city has a whole.

Analysis suggests to me that four quite general factors account for the violent shaking of the creativity-divining rod. They concern:

  1. delight;
  2. capital(s);
  3. time;
  4. space.

Delight comes from the city’s many aesthetic stimuli. They include:

the Lady Chapel in the cathedral (Pevsner characterises the “vivid impression” made by the stonework as “a movement swinging and rocking forward and upward”);

the elegant buildings that line the cathedral close; the (relatively) hilly parkland to the south of the cathedral, enclosing the remains of the castle and affording a prospect of the cathedral; 

The top floor of Topping (c) Frances Haynes, 2012

and the civilised ambience of Topping booksellers, complete with wide range of stock, knowledgeable staff, and spaces for sitting, reading, and drinking coffee.

Even more inviting, in my view, than Topping is the Old Fire Engine House, a combination of cafe, restaurant, art gallery and garden that I’ve been visiting regularly for a third of a century and which never fails to delight. The only changes I can think of there are seasonal – in summer there are the traditional kind of scones, while in winter the scones are ginger.

Capital in Ely is evident in many forms. The city is itself a kind of capital. The seat of a diocese, Ely, despite its size, dominates the geography of the southern part of England’s fenland. Financial capital is embodied in the cathedral and the other imposing buildings owned by the church: but they symbolise too the cultural capital derived from the long tradition of ecclesiastical and artistic importance. It sometimes feels as though the inspiration I take from Ely consists of in some way drawing off from the capital the place has established.

(c) Frances Haynes, 2012

Of time I need say little. One would have surely to be extraordinarily insensitive or ignorant not to feel in Ely a sense of the passage of history. I feel the sense of time most strongly in the little pedestrian lanes right in the centre of the city, north of the cathedral and west of the market square. They frequently arouse in me a sense of ghosts – of people having walked the same lines, going about their errands, over centuries.

The aspects of space most relevant here are (a) scale, (b) morphology, and (c) movement. The scale is obviously small and that creates a sense of, to borrow a phrase from Raymond Williams’s book, The country and city, of a knowable community – one likely to produce intersecting narratives amongst one’s acquaintances.

The morphology is marked by a series of zones (we might say quarters, except they’re not large enough to merit such a term) each dominated  historically by a different preoccupation: trade (in the old river port and in the and around the market square); church; and education. What stimulates the creative impulse here is the juxtaposition of contrasting values. To what extent, one wonders, and in what ways are the relationships between these zonal values compatible, supportive, or competing? Walking around Ely, one can sense a dialogue between them. 

Photo (c) Frances Haynes, 2012.

One might imagine Ely as a static place, cut off from other places by the miles of  erstwhile marshes. But in fact movement is a part of the city’s essence. It is, and has long been, a nodal centre. The industrial archaeology around the river – the maltings, wharfs, and quays – evidence the place’s importance once as an inland port.

The station is still, praise be, an important railway junction – a sort of bastion of resistance against what in Britain is known as the Beeching cuts (the closure in the 1960s of numerous provincial branch lines). The wide platforms, with surviving shop and cafe, evoke a past when not only people, but goods too, typically arrived and departed by rail.

The contribution of the river and the railway is a sense of comings and goings, of the change that movement brings, of the creation of stories.

Tombstone poem in the cathedral: photo (c) Frances Haynes, 2012.


So far, I have described Ely in quite a concrete way. But to understand what I find creative about the place, I have come to realise that one must reflect at a deeper, altogether more abstract level. Introspection, over numerous pots of Old Fire Engine House tea towards the end of many afternoons, suggests that ultimately, creativity in Ely is bound up with the sense of:

  • being provided for;
  • legibility and recognition;
  • command;
  • balance and integration;
  • above all, the possible.

I won’t analyse how these things follow from the account I have given above – that would be boring, and in any case in my own mind I’m far from having exhausted the exploration of that question – but I hope I’ve said enough for the connections not to be altogether obscure.

I’m wondering now how other creative see this place?

Photo (c) Frances Haynes



5 Responses to “What makes a place creative? The case of Ely”

  1. Nice energetic and enthusiastic response to a fine town that feels right in some way. As you say, Ely is readily readable, i.e. we know which bits do what, and why. London does this, but on a much bigger geographical scale. I can’t remember which French poet saw a city as a body, but I think creative work and creative towns interact to engage our sensorium and enhance our sense of aliveness – see Richard Sennett, *Flesh and Stone*. I don’t know Bedford well, but I feel depressed when I go there – does the prison in the centre of the town make a difference?

    • Thank you. I don’t know either – Baudelaire? Interesting about Bedford: I can’t say I find it inspiring, I think because somehow I always feel it could have turned out so much better than it has in practice.

  2. […] readers of this blog will too. The post also chimes with my own enthusiasm for Toppings, expressed here. Tags: libraries, […]

  3. […] to my post on the city of Ely (‘What makes a place creative? The case of Ely‘, 14 March), last week I finally made it along to the local networking group called Creative […]

  4. […] What makes a place creative? The case of Ely. […]

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