JC Stays: University Arms, Cambridge

In a town full of history, this refurbished hotel is first class


There’s much to love about Cambridge for a short break. The university town has exquisite architecture, ancient colleges and a winding river. It’s also under an hour from London on the train. The only thing missing has been a destination hotel — until now.

First opened in 1834 as a coaching inn, the city’s oldest hotel, University Arms, has emerged from a four-year, £80 million refit to become one of the hottest new hotel openings in the UK.

It’s not hard to see why. Set midway between the station and the city centre, the entire front half of the hotel has been rebuilt by The Queen’s favourite architect, John Simpson, restoring its classic proportions and creating an imposing, pillared, drive-through portico entrance. Not only that, the interiors have been designed by man-of-the-moment Martin Brudnizki, who has worked his magic on Annabel’s in London and The Beekman in New York, to name a few. 

Pass through the hotel’s handsome front doors, and you’ll find a calm, scholarly feel and shaded corridors. The hotel is littered with literary and educational references — Wind in the Willows plays in the loos, the walls are painted in Cambridge blue, and even the carpet design looks like a school tie. Original copper turrets and fireplaces have been retained, while fun, contemporary touches, like the collection of artwork, have been added. 

The eclectic feel continues in the bedrooms — expect herringbone carpets, striped fabric headboards, vintage drinks trollies and old-fashioned reading lamps. They range from cosy to classic and superior, while the 12 suites are named after famous Cambridge alumni, each with mini libraries specially curated by Heywood Hill bookshop in London. 

Many have views out onto Parker’s Piece (now regarded as the birthplace of the rules of Association Football) and in some suites on the top floor of the hotel, there are private balconies and bathrooms housed in ‘turrets’. 

Parker’s Tavern is the hotel’s restaurant, but very much retains its own identity, right down to the separate entrance. Martin Brudniziki’s signature design touches are most apparent here — the bar area is reminiscent of The Ivy or Dean Street Townhouse in London, with modern chandeliers, velvet sofas and marbled wallpaper that resembles book flyleaves. 

The restaurant itself is relaxed, evoking a college dining hall with leather banquettes, dark wood, no tablecloths and half-leaded windows featuring the shields of the Cambridge colleges.

Headed up by chef Tristan Welch (ex Le Gavroche and Petrus at The Berkeley) the menu has both British classics, including a daily pie, and exciting world dishes like West Indian roti or East Anglian pulse masala. The puddings are delicious upgrades of childhood classics — Cambridge burnt cream, first served at Trinity College in the 1600s, and rice pudding souffle with raspberry ripple ice cream are both standouts. 

Considering Cambridge is so steeped in history and tradition, creating an exciting new place to stay which still fits the city’s heritage, takes some work. University Arms, however, has graduated with first class honours.


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