Weekend Away: The University Arms
Just an hour away from Kings Cross, Connor Sturges spent an educated weekend in Cambridge at the newly refurbished hotel, The University Arms
Battling with our attention-seeking, squeaky suitcases, me and my companion felt a little silly as we arrived at the University Arms. Partially due to our excited luggage, but also due to our clamber down Cambridge’s Regent Street wondering where to turn and what to look for. Passing a local pizza chain, all became clear, with the city’s landmark hotel standing out like a sore thumb amongst the more modern, commercial buildings that surround it.
Indented from the rest of Regent Street’s properties, an approach to the hotel’s iconic porte cochere evokes scenes of period drama grandeur, as if you’re a member of society’s upper echelons arriving ahead of a state dinner or grand ball. Less than half a decade old, the parthenon-esque frontage is the first of several anachronistic touches throughout the University Arms that transport you to a bygone era. Led by architect John Simpson and interior designer Martin Brudnizki, an extensive redesign and refurbishment was well underway by the latter half of 2014. The Modernist extension of the 1960s is, thankfully, long gone, with the symmetric, classical front restored to its former glory. Brudnizki’s input is consistently evident throughout the communal areas and bedrooms. Considering some of the renowned designer’s other projects, such as celeb London hotspot Annabel’s Nightclub, interiors are comparatively reserved – catering for the well-heeled masses, perhaps, but something many will be appreciative of, particularly in the smallest of rooms.
Check-in swift, we were escorted to our terrace suite by Deputy General Manager Andrew. Having overseen the entire refurbishment, his knowledge of the property is unrivalled, and we instantly took him up on his offer of a tour at some point during our stay.
Entering our room, a complimentary bottle of Gusbourne English sparkling wine and a pair of chunky chocolate bars awaited. Bags unpacked, fizz popped and the taste of salted caramel lingering in our mouths, we unwound and inspected the room. A signature turquoise covers the walls and anything bearing the hotel’s logo, while the reds, browns and oranges of the furniture are mindfully mirrored in the headboard of the spacious bed, providing a warming contrast against the potentially cold, dominant colour. Hanging images of Cambridge alumni and maps of the area pushed local history, while the addition of classic literature certainly excited the bibliophile in me, with Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales willing me to open them.
With such calming décor, the compulsory bed test was dangerous, and it took some self-motivation to head out onto our terrace. Bubbles in hand, we admired our view across Parker’s Piece, watching as students headed home from a day’s study or into the town centre for a night of revelry. An excellent vantage point for summertime people watching over a G&T or three, frosty February temperatures and the stirrings of a storm unfortunately meant a little less outside time for us. Anyway, we had a dinner to get to.
Complete with original stained glass windows and leather bench seating, the interior of the University Arms’ destination restaurant, Parker’s Tavern, is in keeping with the hotel’s nod to the city’s prominent learning hub. An eclectic mix of diners filled the restaurant, where twenty-somethings enjoying a romantic overnight stay, former Cantabrigians and business trip types mingle. With the exception of the odd formal-ish dinner jacket worn over a slightly unbuttoned shirt, the unspoken dress code is notably smart-casual, with the uniformed waiting team by far the smartest in the room as they attend to the desires of discerning diners.
To start, the Winter Truffle Risotto with Berkswell Cheese. Creamy and extremely rich, this is no palette cleanser, with the distinctive, metallic earthiness lingering long after the mains and desserts have been cleared. You finish wanting more, yet unsure if your mouth could handle the feat. The Roasted Cep Mushrooms with Garlic, Parsley & Shallots went down a treat with my dining partner – a perfectly seasoned cream sauce pleasantly centred on a slice of fresh, toasted bread. Our mains arrived with a reminder of head chef Tristan Welch’s vision – classic British fare, with contemporary twists. While my friend’s steak, accompanied by a tasty peppercorn sauce, was met with approval, I wasn’t expecting the Classic British Beef Spaghetti Bolognese to be quite so literal – I was faced with a Bolognese-cum-beef-stew hybrid after choosing what I (naively) expected to be just an exceptional version of the Italian classic, using quality British beef. A twist, certainly, but one that didn’t quite hit the mark. Punishment for my lack of culinary adventure, perhaps, with audible steak-chomping underway to my left, and the Honey & Thyme Slow Roasted Norfolk Duck receiving animated, onomatopoeic approval on the adjacent table.
With wine to finish off, I opted for a Valrhona Chocolate Delice with Bailey’s Ice Cream – a beautifully presented combination of a favourite liqueur and sweet treat, finished off with a shimmering slither of gold leaf. Our inner toddlers squealed in delight as my friend filled in a form to create an indulgent sundae. Rich pistachio and chocolate ice creams were littered with mini marshmallows, coated with a chocolate fudge sauce and crowned with a sticky clump of caramelised popcorn. Bellies full, we headed back to our room, passing through the hotel bar.
While the menus of the Parker’s Tavern are focused on the best of British, the adjoining bar’s signature cocktail menu is more specifically Cambridge-centric, thematically speaking. The teasing Charles Darwin received for his insect collecting is touched on with the tequila-based The Beetle Collector, while the notorious Bloomsbury Set, Lord Byron and Ludwig Wittgenstein also feature in the menu’s recognition of the city’s intellectual prowess.
Once freshened up, an investigation of the area’s pub scene began. Old, characterful pubs filled with chatter as bars ramped up their student-friendly commercial music and locals trickled out of closing restaurants. A few too many cocktails and a dance session later, we retreated to the warmth and comfort of our room.
The following morning brought with it a day’s exploration – but not before a return to the Parker’s Tavern for breakfast. Broadsheets decorate the bar mid-morning, hiding the faces of well-dressed-yet-casual guests as they take things easy over a post-breakfast flat white before a day’s exploration, or visits to the colleges of their academic offspring. Eating later than planned, it appeared this was the done thing – the restaurant was almost as busy as the night before, with the hot buffet selection being topped up with all the ingredients necessary for a hearty full English. Sausages, eggs and pretty much everything else available tested, we headed into the city.
Following faultless assistance from the hotel’s concierge, we ambled towards the River Cam for an obligatory punting session. Our guide, Owen, filled us in on the history of the city as we glided along the river. The colleges that were once home to the likes of Isaac Newton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Stephen Hawking were pointed out during the trip, with the room tragic genius Alan Turing once called home most distinguishable by a fluttering Pride flag. The incoming storm, with its 70mph winds, meant a number of colleges were unfortunately off limits for investigation, although we were able to marvel at the architecture of the King’s College Chapel, deciphering the intricate tales depicted in the magnificent windows as we escaped the bitter wind. Following a claustrophobic golden hour ascent to the tower of Great St Mary’s Church, we headed back to the hotel to join Andrew’s tour of the hotel.
Informed of the property’s history, it was time to make use of the spectacular bathroom. Bath salts and lotions scenting the air and Prosecco in hand, a restful hour passed in the freestanding roll top bath, enjoying the warmth of the underfloor heating and views across the darkening Parker’s Piece and Cambridge skyline beyond. Bubbles dissolved, we reluctantly got ready for another dose of Cambridge’s bar scene and headed to NOVI, a multilevel bar boasting a sheltered, heated terrace, directly opposite the University Arms.
A sleep so deep neither of us wanted to come out of it meant breakfast the next morning was almost missed. Knowing we’d regret a final taste of the tavern however, we headed down for a simple breakfast of fresh fruit and pastries before packing our bags.
A return journey involving bullet sized hail stones, gale force winds and multiple cancelled trains soaked our clothes, bags, shoes and hair, but thankfully failed to dampen our spirits. Heading back to London ahead of a new working week, we’d enjoyed a luxurious, cultural weekend less than an hour’s train ride from King’s Cross. As we slowly drip-dried on the steady train back home, we concluded to commit ourselves to an investigation of the city caught up in centuries of jovial feuding with Cambridge. A side had to be chosen, after all. Next stop, Oxford.