A triumph of renovation: the University Arms Hotel

Nick Chevis tours the recently reopened University Arms Hotel.

For as long as I have been at Cambridge the University Arms Hotel has been a building site. Mysteriously lurking on the edge of Parkers Piece, empty and dormant. But on the 1st of August 2018, after being closed to the public for four years, and undergoing an £80 million revamp, the University Arms has finally re-opened its doors to visitors. It has been worth the wait.

Step under the giant portico and into the lobby on a chilly autumn evening and the first thing you’ll notice is the smell. The lobby rings of geranium. The scent is provided by the very highly regarded London perfumer D.R. Harris & Co, testament to the attention to detail evident throughout the hotel. The visitor is quickly greeted by friendly staff, standing in front of a large print showing 32,000 people gathered on Parker’s Piece in celebration of Queen Victoria’s coronation. The hotel feels a million miles away from the hectic bustle of Cambridge, whilst very deliberately rooting itself in its historic location.

First opened in 1834, the University Arms is the oldest hotel in Cambridge. The hotel started life as a coaching inn, built to provide a resting stop for travellers making the treacherous journey down to London, before the development of a rail network. For almost 200 years, the hotel has moved with the times, converting the stables into garages in 1904, in anticipation of the motorcar’s growing popularity. In the 1960s, the hotel took a fairly disastrous turn to Modernism, sticking a bulky concrete extension onto the front, that looked more carpark than guesthouse. 2018’s reopening marks the triumphant return to the good old days. Cambridge’s landmark hotel is back.

The person responsible for the imposing new design, flaming torches and all, is the renowned British architect John Simpson. Simpson is no stranger to Cambridge, having worked on the Whittle Building at Peterhouse as well as the West Range of Gonville Court at Gonville and Caius. With great success, Simpson can place a modern build comfortably alongside an established architectural style, and he has done just this with the University Arms Hotel. Not only has Simpson brought the hotel back to its classical roots, he’s also carved out space for some further 70-odd rooms, raising the capacity from 119 guestrooms to a whopping 192. It hasn’t been an easy job, with the entire building being gutted and rebuilt from within. Getting an idea of the scale of the project starts to make the £80-million price tag, and four years of building work, seem slightly less eye watering.

Joining Simpson in masterminding the project is the interior designer Martin Brudnizki. Brudnizki is known for his eclectic and vibrant work, decking out hotels across the world with his trademark bold colours and mismatched furniture. It doesn’t take long to notice Brudnizki’s influence as you step into the heart of the hotel, the corridors splashed with Cambridge blue and lined with all manner of relevant artwork, boat-race maps one moment, phrenological charts the next. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into the underbelly of a Cambridge college.

This phenomenon is further consolidated as you wander into the ballroom, with oak panelled walls and windows containing stained glass crests of the Cambridge colleges. It is somewhat unnerving to remember that everything you see is brand new, it feels as aged as the rest of the town. Touches like the original fireplace and reused floorboards help give the reopened hotel its vintage touch.

The association with the university is far from subtle. Carpets designed to resemble a college tie, and the guestrooms laid out in a way that isn’t dissimilar to a typical student room. A desk tucked in the corner and armchairs set about a shallow coffee table, it felt almost like I was about to sit for a supervision. Each of the twelve suits is named after an illustrious Cambridge alumnus. As we looked around a room in the Hawking suite I noticed a A Brief History of Time sitting atop a pile of other related titles. The books are all curated by the Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair, who, established in 1936, have been labelled ‘the most beloved bookshop in London’ by Vanity Fair. Guests can explore more of the collection downstairs in the library, next to a crackling original fireplace.

Those staying in one of the suites on the top floor have access to perhaps one of the best people-watching spots in all of Cambridge, with balconies looking out across Parker’s Piece. They can also survey the bicycles crisscrossing Reality Checkpoint from the bathrooms that are snugly nestled in the turrets. Beautifully fitted with gold taps and very smart black and white tiling, not to mention the underfloor heating, it is here that the comparison to a student room becomes a little more strained. The University Arms may be quirky and eclectic, it is luxurious too.

Very much a part of the whole experience is the Parker’s Tavern, a bar and restaurant headed up by East Anglian chef Tristan Welch. Having trained in some of Europe’s best kitchens, alongside the likes of Gordon Ramsey and Michel Roux Jnr, it is with the Parker’s Tavern that he has returned to his roots. The menu is packed out with tastes of England, locally sourced. The desserts caused most excitement with impossibly large soufflés bobbling their way over to the table. All very tasty, and all very unpretentious, I didn’t leave feeling hungry. Still space for a drink in the bar, where there was no shortage of choice, choosing from the list of 39 gins was about the most taxing part of the entire visit.

Before leaving I dashed to the bathroom and noticed that, rather than mindless music, Alan Bennet’s reading of The Wind in the Willows sang out over the cubicles. Simply one more example of the University Arms’ charming eclecticism.

Cambridge is in need of good hotels. Needles to say, the University Arms Hotel is not pitching itself as the student market. However, with a bottomless tourist industry and a booming technology sector it would seem there is a good supply of guests looking for a comfortable place to stay. In the University Arms the town has gained a thoughtful and exciting option for would-be visitors.

Review by Nick Chevis