Visit to University Arms, Cambridge

Cambridge

The level of detail at University Arms, a newish luxury hotel in Cambridge, is exquisite.

From the riding stirrups contained within the chandelier hanging in the library, in reference to the nearby Newbury racecourse, to the crests of more than a dozen university colleges built into the stained-glass windows, every inch of the property has been meticulously conceived.

In the lobby, a ‘cartographic quartet’ trace the outlines of this most famous academic destination, while a portrait of Winston Churchill during his university days, from which the hotel uniforms derive their inspiration, gazes down.

Everything here has been thought through, compiled and curated, making University Arms an example of how a hotel can channel local character to create something wholly new.

As Andrew Anthony, deputy general manager of the hotel, explains: “This is the oldest continuously running hotel in Cambridge, but we have created a thoroughly modern property behind the classical façade – we seek to seamlessly blend old-world tradition with new technology.

“We trace our roots to 1834, when a 15-bedroom coaching inn opened on this site, but what we have now has been entirely reimagined and refashioned for today’s discerning guests.”

Of course, this level of design does not come cheap.

Having been acquired by Melford Capital in 2014, investors spent £80 million virtually rebuilding the hotel, using some 500 tonnes of Lincolnshire limestone, before it reopened last summer.

Legendary classical architect, John Simpson, and interior designer of the moment, Martin Brudnizki, worked with the owners to reinvigorate the property, without losing its essential character.

The literary and academic spirit of Cambridge remains one of the defining characteristics of the property, which is home to 192 playfully designed rooms.

Among these are ten suites, each named for a figure connected with Cambridge – Stephen Hawking or Lord Byron, for example – with most offering views over Parker’s Piece next door.

Four are located in the turrets at the corners of the hotel (three of which are original, while one was added during the recent renovations) and offer the most desirable accommodation in the city.

But it is those little touches you keep coming back to when you visit.

In the library, there is space for the lovingly restored original fireplace, while herringbone carpets in the guestrooms and apothecary-style amenities from D. R. Harris of London maintain that traditional English air.

Each suite is also complete with a private library curated by Heywood Hill, a bookshop in the capital.

We stayed in the ‘Marlowe’, in honour of playwright Christopher Marlowe, which offered a selection of his works, as well as a number of volumes tangentially connected to him.

At the same time, guests will see state-of-the-art equipment in the downstairs gym, high-spec audio visual equipment in the ballroom and underfloor heating in the bathrooms – modern touches seamlessly blending in with traditional styles.

Anthony adds: “At its heart, University Arms seeks to be a local hostelry, in that it is warm and welcoming.

“But we are also forward looking, idiosyncratic, curious and courageous – we aim to offer an authentic manifestation of the spirit and ethos of a university town.”

Cambridge itself has needed a property of this kind.

The city, which is just over an hour from London by train, receives over six million guests annually, but less than 20 per cent spend the night.

University Arms is an attempt to address this disparity.

Anthony continues: “Cambridge did not really have a luxury hotel, and the market really needed it – we are working to draw new guests to the destination that would not have stayed before.

“People, and we are aiming for guests from China and the United States mainly, who maybe would have stayed in London, just coming here for the day, can now stay overnight.”

He adds: “We have a mixture, 50 per cent corporate, 50 per cent leisure – from when we first opened the doors, we have been popular.”

In a refreshing change from many contemporary hotels, which feel compelled to offer a multitude of ‘dining experiences’, University Arms offers just one restaurant.

Headed up by chef Tristan Welch, Parker’s Tavern is a 90-cover English hostelry serving locally sourced, seasonal food.

Every dish is designed to be a whimsical re-imagining of a British classic, sourced from local fields, fens and seas.

The layout mirrors the communal dining halls synonymous with Cambridge colleges, while a contemporary selection of artwork provides juxtaposition to tradition with injections of colour.

During our visit the restaurant was packed with locals, proving its popularity with residents as well as hotel guests, and the atmosphere was raucously convivial.

This, however, is not a place to diet.

I was treated to beef dripping toast with pickled cucumber, a whole tandoori roasted Norfolk quail with buttermilk and slow roasted honey duck with creamed potatoes.

Each was more delicious than the last, but probably took about an hour from the end of my life.

Finished by sticky date pudding, with rum toffee sauce and clotted cream ice cream, it might have been the most calorific meal I have had this year.

For a real blowout, there are also a range of cocktails that draw on local characters – including the Blushing Byron and Sixth Man, which remembers the infamous Cold War spy ring – which provide the perfect accompaniment to any meal.

University Arms successfully treads that line between traditional and modern.

The centuries old English character is maintained, but enhanced by technology and some unassuming by diligent service – guests will get an authentic taste of the best the country has to offer.

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