It's worth the punt
A 184-year-old hotel in historic Cambridge has been given a stunning makeover. Sarah Marshall offers to give it a try.
Imagine waking up 10 discover your car hoisted on 10 the roof of a 70ft-high building. That's what happened to one unlucky Cambridge professor, when he awoke one morning in 1958 lo find his Austin Seven on 1op or the university's Senate House. Resulting newspaper headlines generated curiosity, outrage, and sniggers nationwide.
"They only found out who it was 10 years ago," says my punt chauffeur and tour guide Kieran, as he pushes us along the River Cam, a strenous activity responsible for his Marvel superhero biceps and a mental bank of Cambridge-related trivia. It wasn't the only prank pulled by some or the UK's brightest students. One Christmas. a group of urban explorers known as the Night Climbers clambered to the top of King's College and popped a Santa hat on its crenulated spires and in the Eighties, a three-wheel Reliant Regal was suspended from the Venetian lookalike Bridge of Sighs.
England's prestigious university city basks in its glorious past and revels in tradition. Urban myths are venerated like passages from the Bible, and as we glide along the shallow river, where bridges arch proudly and willows fountain into the water, stories continuously unfold. A work hard, play hard ethic is clearly at the heart of this city - and that spirit has been embodied by one of the few historic buildings which doesn't belong to the university.
Originally opened as a 15-room coaching inn in 1834, the University Arms Hotel has recently undergone a two year, £80m transformation, and is now one of the few places where it's possible to sleep, eat and drink the Cambridge University lifestyle without needing to pass a single entrance exam.
A property with a story
Overlooking Parker's Piece, a public green where the rules of football were supposedly invented in 1848, the hotel has always been a fixture of the cityscape. "We have elderly couples who used to dance in our ballroom," explains one of the receptionists who's worked here for years. "This is an important part of their lives."
Telling that story - and creating future chapters - was central to the thinking of architect John Simpson and Swedish interior designer Martin Brudnizki, commissioned by new owners Marriott to oversee the renovation. In the main bar, wallpaper with marbled swirls of colour has been designed to mimic a book inlay; bespoke crockery also celebrates key moments from the area's past, with illustrations of foolball players, rowers and Newmarket sausages (the Queen's favourite, apparently).
In the library - a lounge area with velvet armchairs, dimly lit table lamps and studded leather pouffes - a grand wooden fireplace has been relocated; the stained glass windows in Parker's Tavern restaurant are original, and the wooden parquet flooring in hallways is all reclaimed. Although he never visited the hotel, Sir Winston Churchill casts a stern black and white stare from a photo frame behind the reception, and neatly tailored woollen staff uniforms have been modelled on his famous boiler suit. The association is crucial: Celebrating the best of British is what University Arms is all about.
Winning and dining
A standalone restaurant with it's own entrance, Parker's Tavern is a bistro-style set-up intended to look like a communal college dining hall. Chef Tristan Welch, who hails from Cambridge, has designed a very British menu using locally sourced products where possible; a plate of sashimi features slices of fleshy trout from regional rivers and accompanying wasabi and soysauce is made on the premises.
The restaurant also has it's own branded bottle of claret, specially blended in Bordeaux. In the next-door bar, signature cocktails also have a story to tell. Sir Jack's Bat, a smoky powerhouse of rum, mezcal. fennel and bitters, was inspired by English cricketer Sir Jack Hobbs, who practised on Parker's Piece, and the 1848, a complex mix of rum, chartreuse, lime, basil and honey, pays respect to the Cambridge Rules, which would later form the foundations of 'the beautiful game.'
Guarantee of an intelligent sleep
Linked by corridors carpeted in the navy and red stripes of the University of Cambridge's emblematic tie, 192 rooms are spread across four levels. The largest floor areas can be found in the suites, all named after great academics who studied at Cambridge. I stay in the Franklin suite, which pays homage to Rosalind Franklin who contributed to the discovery of the structure of DNA; books related to her work and women in science are slotted into a bedside table. A clever style note, or some ambitious late night reading perhaps?
Duck egg blue walls and metal latticework wardrobes tickle a sense of nostalgia, and the inclusion of an iron and ironing board is wonderfully old fashioned. But It's the bathroom that really steals the show, with its gleaming white porcelain with shiny gold fittings, built into one of the hotel's fairy-tale turrets. Sitting in a deep claw foot bath, I can peer through keyhole windows and watch the sunrise over Parker's Piece. Because even if my IQ falls short of the Cambridge average, I'm still able to appreciate this city's charm and the enduring appeal of a much-loved hotel. You don't have to be a genius to work that one out.