The town’s oldest hotel and its newest – a coaching inn that’s been artfully reimagined by two of the UK’s top talents
First impression This is really nice. Wasn't it, you know, hideous before?
Staff Military precision.
Food and drinks Double-starred first.
Bed and bath That bathroom in the turret. Honestly.
The crowd It should be crowded. Deserves to be.
In a nutshell The smartest choice in the smartest town in the kingdom.
Set the scene
Clatter clatter ding ding! Curses. Nearly bowled over by a cyclist. Ah, Cambridge. Always a bikers' town. But what's this pristine, creamy, be-columned building on the corner, which looks as though it has just landed, intact and unsullied, from the 18th century? Ah, yes. This would be the new University Arms, which is practically unrecognisable, from this particular point of view near the main entrance, from its previous incarnation.
What's the story?
A looming, turreted feature of the landscape for more than a century, dominating one side of Parkers Piece, the windswept, mortar-board-flat common where the rules of football were drawn up. Tolerated rather than admired for much of its life, it has lately been transmogrified into something altogether marvellous and unexpected. It’s down to the unlikely alliance of arch classicist John Simpson (The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace; Gainsborough Hotel, Bath) and interiors whizz-kid Martin Brudzinski (almost every fantastic place you can think of in London, including the new Annabel’s and Sexy Fish); their distinctly different styles prove surprisingly complementary.
What can we expect in our room?
All are named after famous Cambridge alumni – in our case, Christopher Marlowe. It’s a glorious bedroom in a sort of perky Victorian style with a bathroom in one of the turrets and sweeping views across Parkers Piece. It’s the best of the lot (and do be aware that there is considerable variety among the 192 rooms in terms of size and outlook).
How about the food and drink?
Parker's Tavern is the name given to the ground-floor restaurant and the bar, both of which are utterly wonderful: spacious, opulent, bright and sunlit by day, rather louchely atmospheric by night, warmly and elegantly decorated. Chef Tristan Welch delivers classic English comfort food with aplomb (he may even persuade you that spaghetti Bolognese was invented in Cambridge), and the cocktails in the bar are pure dynamite.
Anything to say about the service?
Slightly hit and miss, but more hit than miss. The restaurant and bar staff were absolutely on it, as was the team at the concierge desk. Any wrinkles have probably been ironed out since our early visit.
Who comes here?
Cambridge is a surprisingly diverse place these days. Nor is it just a student town: people come here to do business and see the sights as well as to tell their kids to stop drinking so much and start going to a few lectures every now and then. The University Arms should sweep them all up – out-of-towners, rubberneckers, townies, distraught parents, youngsters high on their new-found freedom.
What’s the neighbourhood scene like?
The revamp has not merely restored the old joint to its former glory but taken it to entirely new heights. This particular bit of Cambridge, on Regent Street near Emmanuel College, is by no means the loveliest; but the spiffed-up hotel nudges it in the right direction and there is no disputing its convenience.
Anything else we should know?
The wonderful poster of Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit by the lifts. It encapsulates the joyous spirit of the whole place.
Is there anything you'd change?
Some of the staff uniforms. There’s a whiff of Dad's Army about them.
Is it worth it – why?
Definitely. Style, charm, location, cocktails.