A historical facelift has restored the old charm of Cambridge’s University Arms Hotel.
When I lived in Cambridge in the 1990s, University Arms stood out for the wrong reasons. Wrapping around a prime parkside corner, the hotel’s facade looked like an architectural patchwork that stitched together different stages of British history with each extension. The problem was the seamstress apparently possessed no matching fabrics.
The original patch, opened in 1834, was a 15-bedroom coaching inn for travellers and their horses to rest for the night. As cars became more popular, the stable yard was controversially converted into a garage, only to be outdone in the 1960s by the kind of hideous brown-brick frontage normally slapped on cheap motels.
Last year’s £80 million ($145m) renovation removed this nasty growth and replaced it with a neoclassical portico, recapturing the romance of the horse-and-carriage era while welcoming guests beneath its elegant arches. Inside, the grandness unfolds from the marble-floored reception to the library, bar and restaurant, collectively known as Parker’s Tavern. Evoking the educational vibes of Cambridge University, the cosy library, complete with a wood-burning fireplace, holds works by famous alumni such as poet John Milton, playwright Christopher Marlowe and naturalist Charles Darwin. The hotel’s best suites are also named after former students and stocked with their books. Even the bin in my guestroom, the Milton Suite, is hand-painted with his portrait.
The largest is the Stephen Hawking Suite, while others have private terraces overlooking the green expanse of Parker’s Piece. Each bathroom boasts a deep, freestanding, brass-footed bathtub, positioned beside a window with sunset views if you time it right. There’s also a rain shower, underfloor heating and custom toiletries by DR Harris. In suite 907 the bathroom occupies one of the building’s turrets, so you can feel like royalty bathing in a tower. Other special touches include vintage desks, gorgeous teacups illustrated with the hotel’s new facade, and diagonally striped carpet resembling a school tie. Paintings of academics, old maps and prints of local landmarks are also displayed throughout the property, enhancing the scholarly yet stylish ambience. Parker’s Tavern is inspired by communal college dining halls, with wall panelling in traditional Cambridge blue and original stained-glass windows. Overseen by Tristan Welch, former head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Petrus, the restaurant serves a seasonal menu of modern British dishes using locally sourced ingredients.
The big breakfast comprises eggs, bacon, sausages, pastries, fruit and granola from Cambridgeshire producers. The salmon is smoked in nearby Newmarket, the brie and salami come from Suffolk, and the honeycomb’s from Dittisham. Sunday lunch is a weekly event, revered for its roast beef trolley and pyramid of Yorkshire puddings. On other days, it’s a tough choice between tandoori quail, truffle risotto, salads, soups, sandwiches and pies. Dinner ranges from “spag bol” made from a two-day slow-cook recipe, to crispy suckling pig and buttered sole with Norfolk brown shrimp.
Before or after dinner, head to the art deco bar for a gin-tasting flight from Cambridge Distillery, a signature botanical-based cocktail or a glass of Parker’s Tavern’s own claret. The wine list also includes a selection from British vineyards to complete the hotel’s celebration of regional yields.
The two-year refurbishment was completed by the Queen’s architect, John Simpson, who has worked on projects at Buckingham and Kensington palaces, and interior designer Martin Brudnizki, whose work graces the hottest venues in London, Paris, New York and Miami. Without doubt, their combined effort has created Cambridge’s best hotel, giving visitors a worthy reason to linger longer than a day trip to this delightful town.
Reviewed by Louise Goldsbury