Call to Arms
Right now, and having undergone an £80 million new look, it is Cambridge's most talked about place to stay. Richard Bryson visits the University Arms Hotel to see what all the fuss is about.
How do you complete the 'Cambridge Experience'? Once you have toured the colleges, visited the museums, taken a punt down the Cam and explored the shops, what or where could make your stay in the city truly memorable? If you really wanted to treat yourself book in at the fabulously refurbished University Arms Hotel. Regular visitors to Cambridge will recognise it as an imposing building on one corner of the 25 acre city common, Parker's Piece. Although a well known landmark, as a venue it's been lying low for two years while undergoing an £80 million makeover. And since its reopening in August journalists from national newspapers and magazines have been descending on this scholarly corner of East Anglia to assess the work of classical architect John Simpson and interior designer Martin Brudnizki.
The verdicts have been favourable and it's easy to see why. As the city's oldest hotel (in 1834 it started life as a coaching inn) it was always unlikely Simpson and Brudnizki were going to drag it screaming into the 21st century. Instead they have fashioned something suitably grand but quirky and humorous too. If you are after modern and corporate surroundings look elsewhere. The coach gate or carriage porch entrance is impressive and you can enter through one of three handsome front doors. One is for the 192 rooms, the others for Parker's Tavern, an all-day bistro and bar. Before entering the dining area there is the library to relax in, so (if the food can wait) why not pick out a book from the shelves and relax into a comfortable chair by the mighty period fireplace?
The bar area has the feel of an upmarket London club but one that has the benefit of being able to look out over the greensward of Parker's Piece. Move through to Parker's Tavern and you find the regimented college style dining hall. You might think it to be stuffy but the idiosyncratic artwork on the walls acts as light relief and when we ate there, early one midweek evening, it was busy and had a lovely relaxed atmosphere. The menu is mainly a mix of English classics - almost nudging into school dinner territory with the likes of a classic 'spag bol' and shepherd's pie. But don't for one minute think you will be getting your standard boarding school fayre - I tried the shepherd's pie and it was superb. You can trade up to char-grilled lobster and chips - proof that the chef has most options covered and can serve up something a little decadent if he is in the mood.
On the breakfast menu you can venture off the straight and narrow and have smashed avocado on sourdough. "Delicious," was my wife's verdict.
I think I have mentioned this place is quirky. Where else can you visit the lavatory (they prefer that to 'toilets') and hear Alan Bennett reading The Wind In The Willows? The latter can be found, along with Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales and Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue in every bedroom though ours, the Stephen Hawking suite, had a mini library of books including some by the great physicist and cosmologist himself. With a wonderfully comfortable Queen size bed, abstract paintings on the walls, two back to back TVs and lots of interesting furnishings our suite mixed the practical with the luxurious. Okay, so the stone floors and black and white tiles in the bathroom reminded me a little of boarding school but at least the bath was in its right place, rather than a feature of the bedroom. With its close proximity to the city centre (John Lewis is five minutes walk from the door) we shopped, explored The Backs, took a punt trip and even walked along beautiful watermeadows to nearby Grantchester. I don't think I've enjoyed an autumn break as much, and the University Arms really was the icing on the cake.