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Picnic perfection in Ely

By Stevie Parle | Published on 14 June 2019

Picnicking is a fine art, but not something that should require days of preparation. Location of course is key, and as part of my work as a Line Resident with Great Northern, I recently discovered that Ely fits the bill. Roughly 15 miles and a few stops from Cambridge, Ely is steeped in history and boasts those “postcard good-looks.”

As I approached Ely station, I genuinely felt my surroundings getting greener, lusher and richer. I learnt that until the 17th century Ely was in fact an island and the plains surrounding the town still flood regularly. Perhaps it wasn’t just my imagination that it was more verdant in the land around Ely than the countryside surrounding it.

Location, location, location

The town itself is beautiful, and the short walk from the train station to the cathedral is pretty picture perfect. If you visit, it’s worth dropping by the Market Place to explore (held on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month) and is a great place to pick up provisions for a picnic. The square feels like it’s been the centre of local trade for hundreds if not thousands of years.

For the ultimate picnic spot, I’d always recommend looking for somewhere with shelter and space, and of course something to picnic on (but not a bench, as that’s too unadventurous!). I like to pick somewhere with some structure, and I found a huge tree stump in the grounds of Ely cathedral that must be one of the best picnic spots in the UK. Sheltered, safe, comfortable, a great view and not too busy. I almost don’t want to tell you about it because it was so perfect.

Creating a picnic masterpiece

I’ve made some pretty labour-intensive picnics in my time, but with three kids and a busy job, such projects are rare these days. However, on this occasion, I was thinking about what would easily transform a picnic staples (you know, delicious cured meat, cheese, etc) to something of a picnic masterpiece. The answer, as every chef knows, is a delicious sauce.

Sauce changes everything and can take the simplest of dishes from pretty average to incredibly delightful - so I made two! My favourite sauce recipes are really versatile and delicious, so I hope you take them on board, and they become part of your personal picnic canon this summer.

Once you’ve made these two sauces (I serve them on the same dish so they slightly mix together) then you can rest assured that even the quickest picnic supermarket dash will be transformed. Put them on dressed crab, radishes, soft tasty bread roles, asparagus (like in the recipe below), anything you like. Finish with a pile of strawberries - no sauce required on these though - and you have the most delicious yet simplest picnic around.

Aioli

  • 1 garlic clove
  • A pinch of salt
  • 2 egg yolks
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 200ml/7fl oz delicate olive oil
  1. Crush the garlic in a pestle and mortar with salt until smooth
  2. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and whisk in the yolks and lemon juice
  3. While whisking very fast, slowly pour in the oil — a few drops at the beginning and increasing to a very slow stream. If instead of thickening you get a thin mixture with little droplets of oil, your mayonnaise has split. Don’t worry, just crack another egg yolk into a bowl and then slowly whisk the split mixture into the new egg yolk. Add a splash of water if it is too thick for your liking
  4. Adjust the seasoning and keep chilled

Romesco sauce with asparagus

  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 3½oz/100g Spanish almonds, toasted
  • 6 small sweet tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 tsp hot paprika
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp sherry vinegar
  • 1 large bunch of asparagus
  • 3½fl oz/100ml olive oil
  1. 2oz/50g coarse breadcrumbs, toasted in the oven with olive oil
  2. Crush the garlic with some coarse sea salt. Add the almonds and tomatoes and crush to a rough paste
  3. Add the paprika, vinegar and olive oil. Toss the asparagus with a little olive oil and salt
  4. Grill on the cast-iron pan until nicely browned and quite soft
  5. Stir the breadcrumbs through the sauce, taste and check the balance
  6. Serve with the grilled asparagus

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