Cambridge isn’t just the home of a world-leading university – it’s also the gateway to Silicon Fen, a cluster of moneyed technology companies. Deciding to open a fabulous hotel here hardly seems rocket science, yet there was nowhere truly stylish to stay until the University Arms was reborn last year.
Now students, their parents, dons, techies, and holidaymakers all have somewhere to descend en masse – and descend they do. They flood through the marbled lobby, creating an all-day buzz in the not very quiet library, the sophisticated bar, and the excellent restaurant. The hotel is delightfully tongue-in-cheek. The teacups have illustrations including an Oxford rower falling into the river; drinks at the bar include the Blushing Byron, a cognac and cardamom cocktail that nods to the poet’s supposed partiality to late-night skinny dipping in Trinity College’s fountain; and Alan Bennett’s calming tones can be heard narrating The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh in the public loos. It’s smart and new, yet quaint and old-fashioned at the same time.
The University Arms first opened its doors in 1834 as a coaching inn overlooking Parker’s Piece, a 25-acre common that’s like Hampstead Heath and Regent’s Park rolled into one. But this much-loved landmark started to lose its way in the 1960s and dropped off the radar completely in the 2000s. Now, after a two-year closure and an £80m crash course in design, it’s back.
You’ll find bags of preppy vibe in the library, providing a sense of place for day-trippers sipping afternoon tea. Its solemn dark panelling and cohiba-coloured leather sofas provide gravitas, the splendid original fireplace injects glamour and a brilliant collection of browsable books (selected by the Mayfair bookshop Heywood Hill) piques the curiosity. The pace quickens in the bar, where the in-demand interiors guru Martin Brudnizki has mixed leather and velvet in turquoise, vermilion and cappuccino shades for his mishmash of low-slung armchairs and banquette seating, and covered the walls in swirly wallpaper inspired by the flyleaves of antiquarian books.
Reviewed by Susan d'Arcy