The Old Fire Engine House: Beloved restaurant owner Ely, 55, says it ‘would never work’

Tucked away in an idyllic spot just west of the cathedral in a pretty Georgian house, The Old Fire Engine House has become something of an Ely institution, ever since the restaurant opened in the summer of 1968.

Ann Jarman, now 84, continues to run the restaurant after starting it in 1968 with two friends. She worked closely with her husband, Michael Jarman, until his death in March 2021. The restaurant was established, initially, due to a perceived lack of local British seasonal food in the area. The husband and wife team wanted to show that British cuisine could be ‘awesome’.

Ann Jarman, speaking to CambridgeshireLive, said the Sixties were a difficult time to open a restaurant. She said: “We were told we had no idea and it would never work, and Ely didn’t need another restaurant.

“We had to get planning permission several times, we bought it for £8500 and did a ton of work on it ourselves because the money was short. A colleague and I did most things, we bought most of them used”.



The gallery has exhibited artists since 1968. Six exhibitions and previews take place each year in a first-floor gallery space with large windows overlooking Palace Green: INSIGHTS – Terry Beard & Stephen Murfitt from 5 April to 29 May 2022

“There weren’t any restaurants doing English food at that time, and we felt English food could be good. We decided to do English food and as much local stuff as possible, lots of pike, eels, then we would do standard fare, beef, game, rabbit, pigeon, plus traditional English dishes like pork and apple sauce.”

The loyalty of the staff at the Old Fire Engine House speaks to Ann and her late husband’s belief that the restaurant should be run as a “family home” rather than a “business enterprise”.

Four generations of a local family – the Fysons – have worked there in various roles. Olive Fyson started in the restaurant in 1968 and worked in the kitchen for 30 years. “His daughters Terri, Christine and Jayne still work with us, as does his granddaughter Claire and both daughters Jarman who also worked with us until recently,” Ann said.



The art gallery recently hosted works by Anthony Day, Richard Neal and Derek Andrews in 2021

Speaking of how the business has changed over the past fifty years, Ann said: “When we started we thought we would be more of a tea shop and do light lunches. I was doing quite a bit of kitchen for lunch, and then little by little we realized that there was more demand for lunches, so we made a cold buffet. [in the first year] we started making steak and kidney pie, although our teas were very popular, we felt there was a need for hot food as there was only one other restaurant in Ely “.

“University of Cambridge [newspaper] was doing great publicity for us, people were mostly from Cambridge, then Ely started to change, more local people came. Today we receive a huge number of regulars from the city itself. Now all the other buildings are a cafe. We are always busy, since we reopened after the Covid, we are full every day”.

The Old Fire Engine House has also hosted art exhibitions over its 50 years, showcasing the work of locals up to Artists of the Royal Academy. It was a development that Ann says happened by “mistake”.

She said: “We were busy painting the walls and looking for decorations in the upstairs guest bedroom. We put out an ad asking for ‘artwork’. We quickly got so much interest and so many paintings that we didn’t know. what to do with it!”

Opening hours of the Old Fire Brigade

The Old Fire Engine House Restaurant & Gallery: 25 St. Mary’s Street Ely, CB7 4ER

Morning coffee: 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday to Saturday

Lunch: 12:15 p.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday

Afternoon tea: 3:45 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday

Having dinner: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

Closed on Mondays, Sunday evenings, public holidays and from December 24 for 2 weeks. For all reservations please call 01353 662582. For more information, please visit their website here.


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Raymond I. Langston