Like people, buildings have different ways of ageing. Some do it gracefully. Some look old before their time. Some die young. And some, like the University Arms hotel in Cambridge, go through something very like a midlife crisis.
There were no signs of trouble to begin with. Built in 1834, the University Arms spent the first 130 years of its existence as a solid, Regency-style hotel. Late 19th- and early 20th-century additions gave it impressive scale, with turrets to match, but its character remained intact. Given its landmark position — on the main road from the railway station to the centre of town, with a commanding elevation on the broad grass expanse of Parker’s Piece — that was just as well.
Then the 1960s struck, and the University Arms began a disastrous flirtation with Modernism. It ditched the original Regency building and replaced it with a zigzag façade that concealed a car park as well as the entrance. This was not a wise move — Pevsner drily remarks that it was “not [the architects’] best work” — but for 50 years it soldiered on with its new look, before succumbing in 2014 to another redevelopment, which has just been completed.
This time tradition is back in the ascendant, signalling its triumph with a massive stone porte cochère, an entrance-shading structure that is somewhere between a porch and a Parthenon. If the hotel is now acting its age again, it is not being shy about it. Having been closed for four years, it reopened on August 1: now its guests can decide whether all the architectural toing and froing has been worthwhile.
It has certainly taken a lot of work. Not only has the 1960s addition been demolished and replaced with a classical frontage, but the entire building has been gutted and rebuilt within. The number of bedrooms has risen from 119 to 192, with suites incorporating the turrets on a new upper level. The front entrance has been moved back from the street, allowing more room for pedestrians to walk by. They can also pass through the porte cochère, which is an unashamed (possibly even ostentatious) feature but functional with it: when I visited, as England’s summer heatwave reached its peak, it was a relief to step into its cool shade. It has all the makings of a default Cambridge rendezvous.
Its owners are no doubt hoping that many of those who meet there will head on in to Parker’s Tavern, a new bar and brasserie presided over by Tristan Welch, formerly head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s Pétrus restaurant. This is a substantial enterprise in its own right, which aims to attract townspeople and passing visitors with a menu that is big on local provenance. Given East Anglia’s rich agriculture, that should not be much of a bind. As in the rest of the hotel, its staff are friendly, attentive and palpably proud of the new venture.
To achieve all this, Melford, the property investment firm that bought the University Arms in 2012, has spent some £80m. That is a lot of money to throw at a hotel in a small UK regional city — the population is nearly 132,000 — but Cambridge is, of course, no ordinary town. Its university is one of the top five in the world (where precisely it sits depends on which ranking you subscribe to) and its institutions dominate both the townscape and the local economy. While tourists flock to admire the colleges’ centuries-old architectural legacy, and proud parents visit to keep an eye on their high-achieving offspring, investors come to capitalise on the intellectual property that the university generates: its website boasts that Cambridge is Europe’s biggest technology cluster, with 1,500 companies employing 57,000 people.
There’s an irony in the fact that, as sleekly contemporary facilities spring up on the city’s high-tech outskirts, the University Arms is jumping back into the past. But it’s hard to find any locals with a good word for what has been lost. To get to reception, guests had to negotiate the car park, a less-than-welcoming proposition for a city-centre hotel. As a Cambridge student in the 1980s, my overwhelming impression was of a drab corporate frontage that asked to be hurried past.
Masterminding the refurbishment have been architect John Simpson and designer Martin Brudnizki. They make an unlikely pair. Simpson is an ardent traditionalist, a specialist in classical architecture, much admired by the Prince of Wales; he has form in Cambridge, having been commissioned by Peterhouse and Gonville and Caius colleges to create new buildings that sit comfortably with the old. Brudnizki is altogether buzzier: “the designer responsible for making London’s top restaurants sexy”, according to one headline. As well as kitting out the Ivy and Annabel’s, and the Coral Room at the Bloomsbury Hotel, he also recently did the interior of New York’s Beekman Hotel. His work feels eclectic and vibrant, with bold colours and contrasting styles of furnishing — not quite “The Timeless Language of Classicism”, as a coffee-table book of Simpson’s work is subtitled.
Yet here their partnership seems to have been a happy one — “his approach, my approach were very compatible,” Simpson says — their respective classical and contemporary aesthetics not clashing but tempering and setting one another off. This is a hotel that abounds in quirky, witty touches, but is never overwhelmed by them. It has character, which is disconcerting when you pause to consider how new it is.
The university provides the keynote for the decor, but handled deftly enough to avoid theme-park pastiche. With red-leather benches and stained-glass college coats of arms in the (original) windows, Parker’s Tavern is supposed to evoke a traditional college dining hall, albeit with cuisine that is several cuts above. Adjoining the bar is a library, which has a huge fireplace salvaged from the original hotel (which in turn rescued it from a long-ago-demolished stately home); there’s also a cosily varied array of armchairs and tables, and shelf after shelf of books, all new and artfully selected. In the bar itself, the wallpaper is patterned to look like marbled endpapers — a bibliophile’s dream, possibly literally so.
The learnedness continues in the 12 suites, each named after an illustrious Cambridge alumnus — Turing, Woolf, Darwin — and each with a fitting selection of books. My wife and I stayed in Hawking, which had copies not just of A Brief History of Time and other Stephen Hawking works, but of many more up-to-date science titles as well. You would need a long stay to get through them. A couple of armchairs were arranged at right angles as if for a tutorial; nearby stood a dark-wood drinks table, with sherry, port and a single malt. Perhaps mindful of overdoing the varsity angle, the room’s designers also lay on a double-sided TV between the bed and the couch. There’s nothing like Judge Rinder to dispel any gathering donnishness.
For guests who want to investigate the original, the hotel can arrange punting trips along the Cam and guided tours of the colleges, or can lend bicycles on which to sally out. It can also supply picnics, though even fine provisions do not guarantee a successful excursion. My wife and I biked our feast through the midday heat to Byron’s Pool, just beyond Grantchester, where the swimmer-poet is supposed to have spent some of his happiest hours as an undergraduate.
It turned out to be a popular venue for professional dog walkers and had been reconfigured in concrete for the benefit of the fish, with signs forbidding swimming. A constant hum of traffic noise filtered through the trees as we gamely persevered with the lobster and rose; given a second chance, I’d stop in Grantchester meadow, which, though nearer to town, is both more tranquil and more swimmable.
Or maybe I’d just remain in the hotel, watching the comings and goings on Parker’s Piece. Bisected by an X of paths, it’s a significant thoroughfare, used steadily throughout the day by cyclists and pedestrians, an endlessly permuting piece of real-life performance art.
At its centre is the four-lamp street light known as Reality Checkpoint, though nobody quite knows why. One theory is that it’s a 1960s thing, a waymarker for hippy acid-heads. Another possibility occurred to me when I ambled over to inspect it up close, and heard a sharp exchange between a pushy cyclist and an inattentive pedestrian (“Anti-social pig!” “Oh that’s you, is it?”): it’s the point at which intersecting paths prompt a sharp collision with reality.
Perhaps the most persuasive school of thought has it that Reality Checkpoint marks the town-gown boundary: the threshold at which, as you head into the centre of Cambridge, the concentration of colleges increases and the ivory tower starts to preponderate over the real world. On this reading the University Arms lies within the zone of unreality. Given the money-spinning achievements of that zone in recent years, it’s probably a smart place to be.
Neville Hawcock was a guest of the University Arms, which has double rooms from about £205
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