Warts and All at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely

In case you were wondering if Mama’s previously stated interest in history is what landed her in Moscow all those years ago, the answer is no.

Mama’s period was always very firmly the early modern one, not the dubious social experiments of the 20th Century. What she really knows a lot about is religious kerfuffles between the Protestants and the Catholics in continental Europe (remember the Jansenists, anyone?), and Venice.

This is what you happens when you offer people free higher education. I’m going to be an engineer, do something with Maths or learn to draw really really well, preferably in a digital medium. Says Mama.

Anyway, this does also mean that she has a passing interest in Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil Wars, which, for the calendar challenged, happened in the 17th Century and had a certain amount to do with arguments about how much incense was the right amount to pacify God (some and hell no none were, variously, the answers. It’s a tricky one, of course).

So it came as something of a surprise when she admitted that she had never visited the Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely, Cambridgeshire, in the building he moved to at around the time his political dabbling as a member of parliament got a lot more serious. It’s only one and a half hours up the road from Granny and Grandad’s! What can she have been thinking?

Oliver Cromwell's House in Ely

Mama has had a horrible suspicion ever since Donald Trump came to power in the USA that a lot of the leaders from history she who amuse her were probably a lot less entertaining when you were forced to deal with them on an everyday basis.

Peter the Great springs immediately to mind.

Yes, he lived in a small modest shack of a house (still there) next to what would become the grandiose Winter Palace in St Petersburg (also still there), worked as a carpenter to learn shipbuilding and a foot soldier to learn warmongering (both of which he was quite successful at on a grander scale later), married a peasant, making her Empress in 1724, and had a collection of animals picked in jars.

But he also went round feeling up women all over the courts of Europe and being surprised that they had ribs that went up and down rather than side to side, exercised an extremely violent temper and a tendency to drink to excess on a regular basis, put to death with extreme prejudice a whole regiment of soldiers out of revenge (and because they were trying to overthrow him) had his son tortured with the result he also died (another rebellion), forced a number of inconvenient women into convents and forced his wife to keep the head of her lover in a jar in her bedroom until she died. After Peter had had it chopped off, you understand.

Mama also thinks that a lot of people at the time considered that building a city on a deserted piece of mosquito infested marshland where every piece of stone had to be carted in from far away with a not dissimilar sense of horror to the idea of building a wall across the bottom of America. Although to be fair, Peter did actually get the job done, while I do not see any fencing currently going up in the USA yet. And, unlike Trump’s, a lot of Peter’s more autocratic diktats were aimed at dragging his compatriots forward, kicking and screaming, into the more enlightened century of the Fruitbat. You might not think making everyone shave their beards off to be the equivalent of Obamacare, but…

He did have tiny hands though.

Oliver Cromwell is another such larger than life character Mama rather approved of back in the day. Well, you have to be impressed by the balls of someone who both goes to war with and then drives through the execution of a divinely anointed king based primarily on the power of his conviction in his own righteousness, don’t you? No? Well, perhaps you too are no longer eighteen and have paid attention to the extreme discomfort being stuck in a country whose system of government has just been overthrown with very little care as to what comes next.

The organisers of the Oliver Cromwell House Museum are not entirely blind to this issue, and present their exploration of his life in the guise of letting you decide for yourself if he was a hero or a villain. Although I am here to tell you that in my opinion the museum is just a teensy bit biased in favour of Cromwell, unless you happen to be so outraged at the mere idea of overthrowing the monarchy that you ignore the charms of a pleasant sort of kitchen containing recipes from Mrs Cromwell’s repertoire and a spirited defense of the lady in question’s cooking skills.

The kitchen at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum

There is also a reasonably large selection of dressing up clothes and period appropriate toys in the room upstairs devoted to the bliss of domestic life in a 17th Century Puritan home. Mama was disappointed to discover the petticoats did not come in her size, and I flatly refused to even contemplate such a ridiculous outfit, but we made up for it by trying on all the helmets. Which are quite heavy!

Dressing up and helmets at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum

Then it was onto the war room! Which brings us back to Donald Trump, mainly so that Mama can have a dig. This is because Oliver Cromwell shares with Trump the background of taking on a role he had no training for whatsoever, after he became one of the first members of parliament to sign up to fight the king. However, it turns out that Cromwell (unlike Trump) was very good at his new job.

Of course, until discovering his true talent he wasn’t all that. He started off as a very minor farming gentleman, having to leave Cambridge University before completing his studies because his father died and he needed to take care of the family. He and his wife moved to Ely when he was left some property there, and he became a tax collector. As an MP, he was active in opposing the king, but not influential. It was his success in leading his troops, and in winning their respect, that led to his eventually being promoted to second in command the of the whole boiling. And when King Charles was eventually defeated, the loyalty of the army meant that he could get away with doing things like dissolving parliament for fannying about too much. And that meant that he was eventually crowned in all but name as Lord Protector, and went swanning about Whitehall and Hampton Court being called Your Highness.

Popular support is very useful for a head of state.

Part of the way he won that though was in looking after his troops rather better than most in a conflict which was particularly badly provisioned. With, usually, a consequently particularly bad effect on the surrounding countryside. Not to mention the fact that this was a conflict renowned for bitterness, with families divided and willing to fight each other to the death for their side of the cause. Which also makes Cromwell quite considerate in the unusual discipline he imposed on his troops, who were infamous for the looting and other atrocities they had a tendency not to commit.

Although this didn’t always work as successfully as we might have wished, as a story on the audio guide which everybody gets free with their entrance tickets shows.

Which I listened to.

Mama, who was about ten seconds up the road in her guide did make the beginnings of a move to snatch the headphones off my ears, but too late.

Poor girl.

Mama stopped encouraging me to activate the extra commentary attached to each of the display cases after that. Stick to the basic kid friendly one is her advice. Although the side discussion about how Cromwell didn’t personally ban Christmas interested my Stoic Big Brother. Mama thinks that’s reaching in terms of rehabilitation though. Trump is inevitably going to blame everything on Congress and the Senate too when history delivers its final verdict that he is a bit of a tit.

Of course, what makes particularly uncomfortable reading in this day and age is the insistence that it was Cromwell’s religious faith that drove him forward. He was certain, certain, that he was doing the work of God in pursuing whatever course of action he took, and that his successes were proof of approval.

Mama does not consider this a mindset to admire.

But in the end, the main entry into the Cromwell-might-not-have-been-a-laudable-man-after-all ledger that the Oliver Cromwell House Museum admits to is contained in a small plaque mentioning in passing the vigour with which he tackled the uprising in Ireland following the beheading of King Charles.

Not, perhaps, too surprising then that when visitors get to vote by putting their token on a board in the appropriate column towards the end of the visit, the balance of opinion is more in favour of the man than against.

Voting Oliver Cromwell House Museum

I insisted on putting a tick in both columns (letting me listen to the guide was clearly a mistake there, the Oliver Cromwell House Museum) which Mama (who defiantly went for the hero side for old times’ sake) says is really the right answer, or rather that the question itself is wrong.

Partly, it depends on where you stand. If you are Irish, or pretty much anyone whose country was overrun by the British Empire then you have cause to see Cromwell as an unmitigated disaster. This is because the eventual restoration of the monarchy did not mean that monarchical or aristocratic power survived intact. Post interregnum, Great Britain was, for its time, a remarkably socially mobile society, and this almost certainly contributed to its success in technological and industrial advances. This, of course, contributed to its expansionist ambitions later.

And if you are a Brit and not from somewhere at the top of the social pile to start with, you can also be bitter that the class system has survived much longer and much more rigidly than you might expect for a 21st century country because of this early flexibility.

So where are we?

Oliver Cromwell was a man who rose to a position of power through a bit of good luck and a lot of being very competent when the situation demanded it. He had principles and tried to see them through, took them farther than many people would bother with, and was willing to compromise his own comfort to do so. But when given power he did not usually go blindly after the other side. For a man whose religious convictions had led him to war and eventually to killing a king, he was extraordinarily active in promoting the freedom to worship whatever way appealed to a person’s conscience, a tolerance he extended even to Jews, long expelled from Britain.

That’s not villainy. But is it heroism?

At the same time, his actions had consequences. The proportion of the population who died in the English Civil Wars is huge, even when you compare it to some of the other ugly wars the country has been involved in. Was it worth it?

And that’s before you consider the massacres in the towns of Drogheda and Wexford. Which is certainly not heroism. But is it villainy? Out and out evidence of his basically evil nature? We recognise the brutalising effect war has on modern-day soldiers, and how sometimes the systems armies use to try to keep it in check fail. Why not understand the same processes are at work on people from the past? On Cromwell as well as the men he commanded?

Not that this is much comfort to all the dead people or any survivors, of course.

Warts and All Oliver Cromwell

But mostly Mama thinks that people shouldn’t be encouraged into the learned helplessness of thinking of their leaders as either saviours or the cause of all their ills.

Anyway. The Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely is worth a look round for anyone interested in the history of the UK, the nature of power and its relationship to responsibility, and ghosts, as Cromwell is said to appear in the bedroom at the end of the tour, and the museum does its best to allow you to imagine this experience.

Death Oliver Cromwell House Museum

More information

The museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say ( at even greater length than Mama) about Oliver Cromwell – Lord Protector of the Commonwealth.

Address: Oliver Cromwell’s House, 29 St Mary’s Street, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 4HF

Opening: 10am to 5pm dailt in the summer with slightly shorter hours in the colder months.

Admission: Adults are 4.90 GBP and kids, 3.40. A family ticket is 14 GBP. There is also an Escape Room at the museum, which is what Mama understands is the British name for a Quest. Yes, she is sulking we aren’t old enough to appreciate this form of entertainment. Yet.

Getting there: Ely is a bit farther north of Cambridge up the A10 or the A14. There’s no parking at the Oliver Cromwell House Museum itself, but there are a number of free car parks in Ely and the one we were in was just a few minutes’ walk away.

Ely’s train station can take you to London King’s Cross or Cambridge, Norwich and the Midlands. It’s a fifteen minute walk to the House from there.

Pin for later?

The Oliver Cromwell House Museum in Ely invites you to decide if Oliver Cromwell was an English Hero or Villain

Tin Box Traveller
Wander Mum

Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, UK

Driving through the eastern side of England is a very odd experience. This is because many of the roads stick up out of the surrounding fields. It’s like driving along the top of a wall. Wheeeee! Mama says the land has shrunk. The water has been drained out of it. Sounds about right. My nappy certainly gets much bigger and heavier as the night goes on.

Wicken Fen is an exception to this. Preserved in its more original waterlogged state by the National Trust, it is a haven for wildlife, fascinatingly reddy brown water, reedbeds full of tall waving fluffy ended grass called sedge and people wanting to get out for a nice walk in the open air. Like us and Granny and Grandad.

The Fen at Wicken Fen
Sedge!

Wicken Fen has a number of different trails suitable for all walking styles, inclinations and abilities, but after a period of relentless damp they were keen for us not to do the squishiest one because of the time it would take for the path to recover from the hordes of our fellow half termers enjoying the first glimpse of sun for ages. Despite Mama actually remembering our wellies for once!

Since fens practically define the word squishy when it comes to the texture of the ground underfoot, this could have proved tricky for our stated aims for the day. Luckily, the team there have planned for what could possibly be a fairly regular occurrence, and built a 1.2 km boardwalk path, which lifts you right out of the water but allows you to roam quite extensively around the wetland. It also has the advantage of being wheelchair, pushchair and small legs accessible.

Boardwalk at Wicken Fen
No mud at all!

This route takes in what are presumably some of the highlights of the place. There are two windmills, both a traditional one for pumping water out of the surrounding area, and a more modern one for putting it back should the British summer surpass itself when what you want is to foster a particularly damp wildlife habitat.

Windmill at Wicken Fen
Windmill!

There are also two hides, both of which proved to be good value for bird spotting. The first looks out over a number of feeding stations which were teeming with small birds. Goldfinches? Greenfinches? Chaffinches? Collared doves? A good variety of tits? This hide had them all and probably a few more I have already forgotten. Much excitement. Helpfully, there are pictures on the back wall so that you can look up any species that elude you.

We also saw a rat. Or possibly a vole. Opinion was divided. Either way, that was thrilling too.

The second hide looked out over the reed beds, and was a bit dull at first. Until, that is, a huge form heaved itself up into the sky and flapped this way and that for a few minutes. Mama thought it was a heron, a bird we see often on the Thames, although she was a bit puzzled about where the legs and stabby beak were. My Brilliant Big Brother scoffed his rejection outright, and a spirited discussion ensued until Granny sided with him. Granny knows about birds.

That, Granny said, is a marsh harrier.

Having spotted a few other hawklike hovering birds of prey on the journey to the Fen we were duly impressed by the massive step up in size of this one. Mama wonders what it eats. Small children, perhaps?

Or a montjac deer? Which we also saw. As frequent frequenters of Richmond ‘the poo’ Park, you would think we were a bit over deer, but this one was soooooo small and cute! I hope the marsh harrier didn’t spot it.

Actually, even if you can’t see the birds, you can hear them and it was very noticable how different the calls coming from the fen are from the urban song birds, cooing pigeons, croaking rooks, and squabbling magpies we usually listen to. And no sqwarking green parrots either, which has got to be a bonus.

Sadly, the animal interest was mostly confined to the first half of the walk. If the damper trails are more accessible, you can make it out to the loomingly large birdwatching towers at the back of the Wicken Fen reserve and try your luck further there. I am also assured by local Claire of Mud and Nettles that wild pony sightings are a regular occurrence on the much longer walk on the other side of the river, which must be BEYOND COOL!

As it was we had a look at the open water channel the National Trust runs boat trips round in the sunnier months and then headed fairly briskly down the back straight to the tea room. Which also had a small play area of woven living willow dens and numerous children to hang out with. Result!

Play area at Wicken Fen
Den!

Next door to this, there is an indoor Visitors Centre where you can pick up scavanger trails, do some crafting or look at a variety of items from the fen under microscopes.

After we had all fortified ourselves in different ways, with coffee, cake or recreational fun, we went off to have a look at the traditional Wicken Fen worker’s workshop and cottage. The workshop was pretty cool, with its boat, it’s wickerworked items, photographs of the fen dwellers of old doing baffling fen dwelling things, and satisfyingly gruesome decorations in the skulls of different small fen animals the fen dwelling humans had killed.

Workshop at Wicken Fen
Wicker!

The cottage itself was not officially open, but the very kind volunteers invited us in anyway and told us all about it.

Cottage at Wicken Fen
Cottage!

The fact that it was pre season probably made it a more authentically dank experience than normal, and Mama found it a bit depressing, especially when added to the story of how diphtheria ravaged the children of the cottage in one horrible week. Central heating, electricity, large windows and inside toilets, Mama says, have a lot to recommend them. Although she also says it was a shame that Papa was not there to find out that the British can make efficient ovens with chimneys designed to retain heat rather than funnel it straight out of the house as quickly as possible when they really want to make bread.

Last stop on the way back to the car park was the chicken run, and so, topped up with animal sightings once again, and let loose on the muddly puddles in the carpark to boot, we ended the day triumphant.

Chickens at Wicken Fen
Chickens!

All in all, Wicken Fen is good for a run around in a variety of different weather conditions, and suitable for all members of the family. It’s great. And we’ll be back when the sun has dried up the soggy paths a bit more.

And, of course, so we can see the horses!!!

More Information

Wicken Fen on the National Trust’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the National Trust.

Address: Lode Lane, Wicken, Ely, Cambridgeshire, CB7 5XP

Opening: The fen is open from dawn to dusk year round. The rest of the facilities are available 10 – 5, except the cottage, which is open a bit later between mid March and mid October.

Admission: Adult: £7.15, child: £3.50, family: £17.75. National Trust members are FREE.

By car: There is a large parking area close by. Free to National Trust members, £2.50 to everybody else. The fen is south of Wicken (A1123), 3 miles west of Soham (A142), 9 miles south of Ely, and 17 miles north-east of Cambridge via A10.

By train or bus: Ely is 9 miles away. That appears to be your lot a far as public transport is concerned.