Some commentator on the English nation characterized them as a "commercial people". The label seems apt. Ely's ancient downtown becomes unbelievably crowded during the week days and especially on Saturdays. The area then empties out when the stores close and by seven in the evening the streets are deserted. However, during the day the grotesques and gargoyles of the medieval cathedral obviously unsuccessful in their attempt to scare people away from the material things of this world look down on mobs of shoppers. The sidewalks are filled with pedestrians and the narrow streets are clogged with bicycles and automobiles. The outdoor markets stalls are crammed with people and the eateries are constantly full. If one goes into the shops which are not big to begin with, one is forever crowded by polite but ever present people. Yet, this is a town of only ten to fifteen thousand people. Nearby Cambridge is much more crowded. The best thing to do for a claustrophobic Mid Western American like myself is to hunker down in some coffee shop or library and stay out of the way. Weekends are a good time to catch up on one's reading.
England, at least as seen from my perch in Ely, manages to maintain healthy downtowns. This may be changing. Big box stores are invading the green space around English cities and Ely is no different. In the last few years a Sainsbury's grocery store has appeared and an almost equally huge Aldi's is being built next to it. Nevertheless, the English are a walking people and the need for easy parking that so undermined downtown American stores may not be at work here. Encouraging foot traffic are walking paths, side walks, parks and bike trails. The countryside too is highly accessible. On the Cambridge train, whatever the wet weather, one sees ecstatic dogs and their masters walking on public footpaths that no farmer dare block.
It is always a bit of shock to return to the Midwest with an equally beautiful but usually off limits countryside. Downtown shops are often boarded up thanks to the presence of shopping malls on the edge of town reached only by automobile. Maybe in another hundred years or so we will learn to walk too.