Overlooking Parker’s Piece, the University Arms is Cambridge’s oldest and finest hotel, and now it’s been revitalised as a world-class retreat in the heart of the city
Words by Libby Norman
Many moons ago, an elderly relative used to treat me to tea at the University Arms, and while my recollections of the cream cakes and service are fond, its unfortunate mid 20th-century front extension never quite matched its setting overlooking Parker’s Piece and Regent Street, let alone the Regency grandeur of the original hotel.
That 1960s student dorm look is gone, following a total renovation presided over by architect John Simpson, and with a grand reopening of the hotel in August 2018. The entrance is the first and most impressive change, with a Lincolnshire limestone porte-cochere. It’s grand, beautifully mellow in the sunshine and very welcoming indeed.
The same grandeur is continued inside, with a cool reception space for guests and a separate entrance for the hotel’s bar and restaurant. We are shown up to our rooms along a corridor lined with an eclectic selection of old pictures and prints. I want to stop and scrutinise them all. This is the inspired hand of interior designer Martin Brudnizki, with wonderfully quirky details everywhere you look.
“Our room combines lavish and cosy brilliantly – a huge bed, chaise longue and a desk made for penning verse or letters to The Times”
Our room on the eighth floor combines lavish and cosy brilliantly – a huge bed, chaise longue, armchairs and a desk made for penning verse or letters to The Times (this is Cambridge, after all). There’s a glass drinks stand rather than a mini bar, and a selection of carefully chosen vintage hardbacks, including Paradise Lost. We also have a large window overlooking Parker’s Piece, a hallowed piece of common ground where the rules of football were invented, even though these days the city is more of a punting and cricket kind of place. The bathroom is so luxurious I almost don’t want to go out – a huge rolltop bath, lavish shower and twin sinks.
Resisting the temptation to hunker down in our monogrammed University Arms robes, we take a tour. The original ballroom has been restored and is a magnificent space for a wedding, with windows overlooking the Piece that bear the coat of arms of every Cambridge college. The Library is relaxed and clubby, with wood panelling, vast fireplace and book-lined shelves. It’s the perfect place for meeting friends, afternoon tea or a lovers’ tryst. And it really is bookish here – there’s a spirited reading of Wind in the Willows in the washrooms rather than conventional piped music.
We have reservations for dinner at Parker’s Tavern, the University Arms’ restaurant, and I’m very excited about the menu of British classics with a twist. Chef Tristan Welch – a local boy – worked with Gordon Ramsey, Gary Rhodes et al, and this is a triumphant return to his roots and the seasonal riches offered by East Anglia’s farms and small producers.
The restaurant is as comfortable as the rest of the hotel, with artfully jumbled artworks on the walls and pops of bold blues, oranges and reds on chairs and banquettes. It’s also very busy – buzzing with that classic brasserie vibe.
Tempted by the hand dived scallops and Norfolk devilled potted shrimp, I eventually move away from shellfish completely. The only person I know other than me still serving coronation chicken as a signature dish is Tristan Welch, and I have to try his. It arrives nestling on a butter lettuce, with almonds, grilled apricots and a zesty dressing. My companion also goes for the curried side, choosing a whole tandori roast quail. Silence ensues as he strips every last morsel from the little bird – he says it’s the nicest thing he’s eaten all year.
“Chef Tristan Welch is a local boy and this is a return to his roots and the seasonal riches offered by East Anglia’s farms and producers”
For mains, we also veer off our usual courses. While my companion is tempted by the “British classic” spaghetti Bolognese and the pie of the day, he eventually succumbs to Saffron Walden lamb from Denham Castle, braised in Essex saffron and cumin. I go for the home-cured Ayrshire bacon, egg, chips and house speciality Cambridge sauce (P’T). Tristan has boldly taken on ham egg and chips – it is a much more complex take and utterly moreish.
They bring us the dessert menu. Rice pudding soufflé with raspberry ripple ice-cream for my companion and I can’t resist the ice-cream either. Select three scoop flavours with toppings and sprinkles of your choice. What’s not to love about that? Served in a tall metal goblet that takes me back to the finest Wimpy Bar brain-freezers of my childhood, it has soft swirls of ice cream on top almost like a 99. It even has a chocolate Flake in it – heaven.
After a nightcap at the bar and a very long and very comfortable sleep, we venture down to breakfast. I stick with the scrambled egg on toast as I had best ever bacon last night, while my companion has the Parker’s Tavern gourmet version of a ‘full English’. In need of light exercise, we take a tour round Parker’s Piece and view University Arms from the other side of the green. It has just reopened after a monumental restoration, yet it already looks and feels comfortably settled in. It is, in truth, a landmark hotel restored to its rightful place on the Piece.