In celebration of the Year of the Rat we bring you the University Arms where copies of The Wind in Willows, the tale of Ratty, Mole and Badger written by Kenneth Grahame, are in every guest rooms and a recording of Alan Bennett reading the book is transmitted in the restaurant/bar loos…
What’s the story?
Cambridge’s oldest hotel, the University Arms which began life as a coaching inn in 1834, has reopened following a four year, £80m refurbishment. The original classical façade overlooking Parker’s Piece (a green space that was the scene of Queen Victoria’s coronation banquet) has been retained but the interiors have been rebuilt and an out of place 1960s extension has gone. In its place the new building is in keeping with the original style.
It looks so authentic…
Architect John Simpson has worked on such grand projects as Buckingham and Kensington Palaces and a couple of Cambridge University colleges so knows a thing or two about classical refurbishments. His design for the University Arms includes a striking porte cochere – a columned, covered carriage entrance, for cars rather than horses these days and a grand lobby inside. It’s hard to believe the new addition to the hotel building hasn’t always been here.
What about the interiors?
They’re down to Martin Brudnizki, designer du jour (responsible for the new Annabel’s clubhouse in Mayfair and the refreshed Ivy in Covent Garden). Overall the feel is of a contemporary private members’ club: Farrow and Ball painted walls, reclaimed wooden floors, antique rugs, on trend ottomans and armchairs and sofas that beg to be sat on.
What about the rooms?
They span cosy (19-22sq ft) to superior plus there are 12 suites named after Cambridge alumni including Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf and Stephen Hawking. All the bathrooms have black and white tiles, underfloor heating and DR Harris of St James’s products. Twenty six of them have (roll top, claw foot) baths as well as showers.
What’s the food like?
The hotel has cleverly recruited talented local (by way of London and Mustique) chef Tristan Welch. With the restaurant, Parker’s Tavern, taking inspiration from a college dining hall with stained glass windows and leather bench seating, the menu offers a modern take on traditional British fare using East Anglian produce including smoked trout, potted shrimp, a daily roast trolley and pie of the day. Don’t miss the Cambridge Burnt Cream pudding – a British take on Crème Brulee.
Is there a bar?
As the name suggests, Parker’s Tavern is split between a restaurant and a sizeable lounge bar where the members’ club atmosphere continues. The bar itself is lined with vintage style leather stools plus there are plenty of velvet sofas, a vast spirits list and strictly no beer on tap.
What about my fellow guests?
Visiting academics, students being treated by their parents, tourists from the US and China and tech people (Cambridge is becoming known as the Silicon Valley of the UK).
What is there to do?
The hotel is on the doorstep of the city centre so the historic colleges are a short stroll away – or take one of the hotel’s bicycles in signature light Cambridge blue. Tours as well as punts on the river Cam can be arranged. The hotel will even whip up a picnic for you. If you’re looking for the willow tree celebrated in Xu Zhimo’s poem, Second Farewell to Cambridge, it has recently been removed but a cutting has been planted nearby at the newly opened memorial garden in the poet’s alma mater King’s College.
Anything else I should know?
Playing on the learned location the hotel has made books a feature. Rather than the usual untouched, artful collection the hotel’s guest sitting area, The Library, has a selection intended to actually read curated by the renowned Heywood Hill booksellers in London. Each of the suites includes literature by or about the namesake while the other bedrooms each has a copy of The Wind in the Willows, Porterhouse Blue and Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses.
What’s the bottom line?
Prices for rooms start at £205 for cosy rooms and £505 for suites.
The hotel is on Regent Street, Cambridge CB2 1AD Tel +44 1223 606066. http://www.universityarms.com
[A version of this piece was originally published in the South China Morning Post in 2018]