This summer, holidays for most of us have been staycation trips to the sea or the countryside. But what about city breaks? Post lockdown, I found myself longing for immersion in culture and history, and my thoughts turned immediately to Cambridge.
The ancient university city is a honeypot for foreign tourists but this summer it is a little quieter, ours to explore and enjoy. Around every corner in Cambridge there is a wonder to look at, and I wanted to do so at leisure. So I checked into a hotel that is part of the city’s history.
The University Arms, overlooking the greenery of Parker’s piece in the centre of the city, started life as a coaching inn in 1834, and grew to become an institution. It was virtually rebuilt two years ago by the architect John Simpson, with interiors by Martin Brudnizki who designed the Ivy. The result is classical English with a contemporary, playful twist; solidly comfortable and stylish.
There are lots of nods to Cambridge’s intellectual and literary tradition – original stained glass college arms in the windows; vintage pictures of university life, the boat race and famous alumni. By the entrance is a beautiful, hushed library with books curated by Heywood Hill bookshop.
Our room was named for Alan Turing, the King’s College fellow and Bletchley Park codebreaker, and to my delight there was a biography of the great man on the bedside, and a selection of other books, including the story of Kim Philby, one of the famous Cambridge spies. I could have happily settled on the chaise longue at the end of the bed, or out on our terrace overlooking Parker’s Piece, and read for the duration.
Instead I took a bath in the rolltop bath in the wonderful black and white tiled bathroom, roused myself and we headed out into the city. The University Arms is located close to all the landmarks, and we walked for hours, through shopping streets to the river, along the backs – the path by the Cam that offers a view of the great colleges; through twisting lanes of ancient buildings.
We returned tired and hungry for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Parker’s Tavern, well known in its own right in Cambridge, is brasserie style, with a sophisticated but welcoming feel and the food was wonderful. “English style with an eccentric twist” is the promise. I had a fishcake with sorrel and lemon butter sauce to start, and for my main, roast organic chicken and stuffing salad. Both were complex in taste and texture; crisp coating and sharp lemon; soft chicken and a bitey stuffing. The best of modern cooking, and reasonably priced too.
I’d always thought walking was the best way to see any city, but after breakfast (green smoothie, scrambled eggs, sourdough, the best decaff coffee I have had in a long time) we tried cycling and I am a convert. The hotel has bikes for guests to use, painted in its distinctive blue livery, which is based on the university blue. Cycling is of course the traditional way to get around in Cambridge and it is easy to see why. It is flat and there are cycle paths – and cyclists – everywhere.
We pottered around the streets, and then took a famous path out along the river, through the meadows, to the pretty village of Granchester. Well known for its literary associations (Rupert Brook lived there, and wrote his poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester in a fit of homesickness for the place), it now is said to be home to the world’s highest concentration of Nobel prize winners.
Time for one more change of transportation – a punt. I would say this is a must for any visitor to Cambridge. We used the hotel’s service – it has a dedicated punt – and our puntsman was a mine of information.
An hour of tranquillity, transported into another world as we drifted along the backs, passing the ancient colleges one by one and hearing their history. What better way to end our trip.
Rates at University Arms start from £159 per room per night. Suites start from £419. www.universityarms.com