There is a mythical spot on Parker’s Piece – a ﬂ at grassy gathering spot in Cambridge – known as “the point of no return”, somewhere said variously to be the outer limit of the hallowed colleges of Cambridge University and also a spot where opium users would gather back in the day.
While there certainly wasn’t any opium in the array of cocktails I tasted before dinner, there were deﬁnitely some unusual ingredients involved. And it wasn’t long before their potent mysterious contents meant I’d reached the point of no return (in inebriation terms) too. Egged on by one of the main architects of this alcoholic alchemy, chef Tristan Welch, ‘a quick pre-dinner drink’ turned into an hour-and-a-half paired with great chatter and gorgeous sushi (including local chalk stream smoked trout). One of the cocktails was made with Anty Gin, each bottle of which contains the essence of about 62 red wood ants.
Welch seems thrilled to be back in his hometown (after three years as executive chef of the Cotton House and Beach Cafe in Mustique) and even more ecstatic at the chance to start his own restaurant literally from the ground-up in the shape of Parker’s Tavern, the social hub at this new hotel.
Views from this convivial Martin Brudnizki-designed bar and restaurant are naturally of the eponymous park and sunlight streams through windows with coats of arms from some of the 31 colleges of Cambridge. While “the point of no return” might be tricky to conﬁrm in the history books, the park’s other claim to fame is well documented: it’s where football association rules were formed in the 19th century. This handy fact helps explain why there are chocolate footballs on the afternoon tea selection – more of Welch’s humour coming through. You can enjoy your afternoon tea in the lounge bar – one of three sections of Parker’s Tavern – next to a roaring ﬁre and surrounded by a collection of books brilliantly curated by Heywood Hill.
Other deliciously creative twists on the menu included crayﬁsh pastry boats that are a riff on the famous inter-university boat race and Sir Isaac Newton’s Apple, a glazed apple mousse with a compote centre (Newton’s theory of gravity took shape when an apple fell on his head walking through Trinity College).
First opened in 1834, this was Cambridge’s ﬁrst hotel, but its more recent years were architecturally chequered to say the least, with some of its best features destroyed in pursuit of modernisation. But now, thanks to an £80 million investment, it’s back on form, thanks to careful restoration by architect John Simpson, seen as the nation’s foremost classical architect. Elegant pillars and a reinstated porte-cochere create a ﬁ ttingly grand sense of arrival and smart doormen do the rest. The sense of history rushes over you as you enter the lobby, as does a stunning aroma – the hotel’s bespoke scent created by traditional British apothecary D.R. Harris. As well as Welch’s 110-seat all-day dining restaurant and 61-cover bar, there’s a small gym and the hotel has a grand ballroom suitable for any illustrious Cambridge event. And, of course there are 192 guest-rooms, delightfully acting as willing canvas for the bright and brilliant work of Brudnizki – University Arms is his ﬁrst complete hotel project in the UK, showcasing his interiors from top to bottom.
Known for his bold colours, there’s certainly no shortage of those here either, especially on squishy velvet-ﬁnish chairs and sofas. But the rooms are quintessentially English, with literary and academic references everywhere, including books placed by every bedside, antique furniture that makes you feel you are visiting a don’s office for some study notes, and framed pictures of Cambridge scenes and wildlife contributing to a homely feel. The piece de resistance in my turret suite was the bathroom – neatly implanted into the turret with views on almost all sides and a freestanding rolltop bath looking out over Parker’s Piece so that if one were so inclined, you could relax in the tub and stare out in search of that point of no return. I deﬁnitely want to return here, for many reasons; not least the killer cocktails and the best veggie cooked breakfast I’ve ever had.
Good to know
■ Popping to the loo on the ground ﬂ oor is a quirky must: there’s audio playing of Alan Bennett reading from The Wind in the Willows.
■ Guests can make like the locals and explore on two wheels thanks to free bike hire.
■ The Journal is a great little weekly guide created by the hotel with top tips locally; this might include a visit to Kettle’s Yard, the gallery home of art legend Jim Ede given a modern expansion early in 2018.
■ Another must – in the right season – is punting, but do advise clients to get a private hire punt with a guide, rather than enter into the melee themselves!