If there’s one thing that sums up the University Arms hotel in Cambridge, it’s the fact that, instead of chocolates on your pillow, guests are gifted with bookmarks.
These will come in handy, as the hotel has its own library and many of the rooms feature bookshelves with a varied selection of choices, from this year’s hit novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock to classics such as The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Cantabrigian people are understandably proud of their historic city, and the University Arms is a monument to everything that makes Cambridge so special. The hotel’s walls are covered in paintings, photographs, illustrations and movie posters, each with a link to the city, and Parker’s Tavern – the restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel – features fresh produce from local farmers. Even the cocktails in the bar are themed around Cambridge. I recommend the fruity and refreshing Bloomsbury Boozer (named after the Bloomsbury Set, who met at Cambridge during their student days).
The University Arms reopened in August after a two-year, £80 million renovation. A hotel has stood on the same spot since 1834, making it Cambridge’s oldest hotel. As well as knocking down the hideous 1960s façade and replacing it with a far more impressive white stone frontage, an extra floor has been added, bringing the number of rooms up to 192.
We stayed in the hotel’s Virginia Woolf-themed suite (each of the 12 suites is themed around a prominent Cambridge character). A portrait of the author hangs on one wall and the bookshelves also feature her works. It’s a bibliophile’s dream.
Huge windows lining one side of the suite give amazing views over Parker’s Piece, a green common where you can watch students playing hockey and tweed-clad professors cycling to lectures. The décor is clean and calming, with walls painted Cambridge blue and stylish brass furnishings – unfussy yet with the odd quirky touch. The bathroom is stunning, with black tiles on the floor and white tiled walls, a claw foot bath with gold taps, glorious underfloor heating and a spectacular waterfall shower.
Parker’s Tavern is a ‘quintessentially British brasserie’ and the menu includes favourites such as roast suckling pig, spaghetti Bolognese and, of course, pie. The restaurant is designed to feel like you are eating in university halls, so the atmosphere is cosy and relaxed. Huge windows featuring stained glass college crests overlook Parker’s Piece and, like the hotel corridors, the walls are covered in paintings and photographs.
My starter of coronation chicken with crispy lettuce, crunchy almonds and sweet, charred peach was a dish of delicious contrasts, and my main dish of cod was beautifully soft and flaky, with crispy barbecue-flavoured skin. Dessert consisted of a Valrhona dark chocolate bar with a biscuit base and salted caramel mousse – the perfect balance of sweet tempered with savoury. But I was outdone in the dessert stakes by my friend, who ordered the rice pudding soufflé with raspberry ripple ice cream – she pronounced it to be the best dessert she had ever eaten.
Breakfast is also served in Parker’s Tavern and guests can choose from the menu of British classics or a glorious buffet. With the early morning light streaming through the stained glass windows, and dishes piled high with smoked bacon and roasted heirloom tomatoes, plus wicker baskets full of homemade pastries, it was the perfect start to the day.
It’s the small details that make the University Arms worth a visit. In the ground floor bathroom, you can listen to a recording of Alan Bennett reading The Wind in the Willows. The jewel-coloured velvet sofas and leather armchairs in the bar encourage you to lounge for as long as you like, cocktail in hand. The smell of geranium drifting through the hotel corridors is the same as the D.R. Harris toiletries featured in the rooms. And you can hire bicycles (painted Cambridge blue, of course) to explore the city.
Within easy walking distance of the university colleges, as well as the river and a variety of shops, the University Arms is the perfect base from which to sample the best of Cambridge’s charms.
For more information and to book visit universityarms.com