Cambridge's iconic hotel has had a long-awaited facelift
IF YOU STUDIED AT Cambridge in the 1980s, chances are you had tea with your parents at the University Arms. But even back then the city's original hotel, which opened in 1834 on Parker's Piece, a 25-acre green said to be the birthplace of football, was tired. It had also been blighted by the addition of two ugly extensions and a particularly unsightly car park. Despite everything, the hotel remained a much-loved local landmark. But after a fire in 2014, it finally closed.
Last month, University Arms re-opened after a triumphant makeover that did away with the ugly newer bits, restored and sympathetically added to the Regency ones (the man overseeing it, John Simpson, is the nation's foremost classical architect, whose recent projects include Eton and Buckingham Palace) and added freshly contemporary interiors with Edwardian touches and historic Cambridgethemed references - from scholarly books to competitive rowing - by interior designer Martin Brudnizki (Soho Beach House Miami, The Beekman in New York).
While Cambridge has a few decent hotels, it's certainly had none like this before. It has been reopened for just 10 days when I visited, and the ground-floor restaurant, Parker Tavern, loosely modelled on a college dining hall, albeit one with red banquettes, cool vintage theatre posters and stained-glass windows, is hopping. There's a palpable sense that the city is ready for this.
After checking in at the lofty new marble-floored lobby, we are whisked up to the Hawking Suite. It's one of 12 named after significant Cambridge characters and is decorated in warm colours like sage green and Tiffany blue, with interesting portraits of Hawking dotted about and a shelf of related books. I curled up in a duskyblue armchair in our park-facing bay window and attempted to speed-read A Brief History of Time before dinner. In the park below, there's a game of cricket going on, cyclists and walkers weave along every path, and, in the distance, a kiss-me-quick fairground is in full swing. In a city of so many immaculately lawned inner sanctums, Parker's Piece feels like a refreshingly democratic green space.
Back downstairs, the evening fun has begun. While a few people are still sipping tea by lamplight in the hotel's wood-panelled library, over in the bar, which is lined with marbled paper reminiscent of the inside covers of antique books, groups of friends have moved on to serious cocktails (its menu features 39 gins, among other things).
Beyond the library, Parker's Tavern is headed up by Tristan Welch, a returning local, who cut his teeth under Gordon Ramsay at Petrus and more recently ran a restaurant on Mustique. Here, every delicious dish is a whimsical reimagining of a favourite, from the knockout spaghetti Bolognese made with pull-apart-tender braised beef to a delectable rice pudding souffle.
Review by Francesca Syz