Erudite RevivalUniversity Arms Cambridge
"I sit at the desk and imagine writing here, in some quiet hour of the night; the page illuminated only by the amber glow of the desk lamp, the dark mass of Parker’s Piece an unintelligible void beyond the windows."
From wandering men of professorial appearance, dressed in corduroy with long white beards, to museums, schools, university departments, and ancient colleges rising behind imposing gateways, Cambridge emits studiousness in myriad forms. The collegiate atmosphere is palpable upon arrival at the University Arms. Through the hotel’s grand porte cochère, raised by stout Doric columns, a wood-panelled library opens immediately to the right. Arm chairs in turquoise and yellow ochre are arranged around a broad, reclaimed Georgian fireplace, interspersed with round mahogany tables, while books selected by Heywood Hill of Mayfair line the shelves, set between the room’s high, arched windows.
This comfortable scene tempts me to linger, but I leave my bag at reception and head out to explore the city. With a sticky Chelsea bun and steaming coffee in hand, I contemplate what it must be like to be among the students here, watching them rush under the ornate Gothic cupola of the King’s College gatehouse. I decide to seek out the peace of the Backs, and walk down a narrow alley abutting the walls of the college courtyards. Remarkably, even here, in this shady street out of common sight, a stone side entrance leading to Gonville & Caius College is as intricately rendered as any I’ve seen, fitted with arches, pinnacles, columns topped with Corinthian capitals, metopes, triglyphs and dentils. Leaving the dramatic gateway behind, I turn down another street and arrive at the Backs. Arched stone bridges extend over the river Cam, which bends smoothly around Trinity College. Weeping willows dangle over manicured lawns, while punts make their easeful journeys below the bridges.
Crossing the Cam, I head through the parkland and hurry back to find my suite on the top floor at the University Arms. A velvety chaise longue rests at the foot of a wide bed, and a deep, stone balcony lines the full length of the room. The suite is named for King’s College alumni Alan Turing, and books that relate thematically to his achievements of wartime codebreaking, and developments in theoretical computer science, are scattered about the room. His portrait hangs from the picture rail above the bedside table. Aged sixteen, with neatly combed hair, and smartly dressed in a blazer and tie, he looks happy, intelligent, and perhaps a little shy.
I step onto the balcony and gaze at Parker’s Piece below: a wide square of green, where walkers and cyclists battle the wind along its central, diagonal path. I imagine how the scene might have appeared in the mid 19th century, during the time of the hotel’s origins as a 15-room coaching inn. Due to its position here, it was Cambridge’s most centrally located inn still accessible by coach, before the cobbled streets of the city rendered such transport impractical.
I lean against the cold stone parapet. Turquoise copper patina gleams on the hotel’s roof, and noble turrets extend from each corner. The turrets were remodelled into en suite bathrooms, while the entire top floor was built anew during the University Arms’ recent two-year refurbishment, prompted by a fire in 2013 that damaged much of the upper floors. Seizing the opportunity for an extensive renovation, the hotel team chose to demolish a jarring 1960s modernist addition to the building to make way for the new, cohesive structure. Designed by John Simpson – the classical architect behind the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, as well as courtyard buildings for a number of Oxbridge colleges – the hotel’s façade has been returned to its classical, Regency-style origins, while the total number of rooms was increased from 119 to 192.
Interior architect Martin Brudnizki was enlisted for the overhaul of the hotel’s interiors. Having previously worked on the Beekman in New York, and the Ivy and Annabel’s in London, Brudnizki has employed energetic, alluring colours throughout the University Arms, which nonetheless blend sensitively with Simpson’s formal façade. In my suite, a neat wooden desk, topped with soft leather in a mustard yellow tone, is placed against a wall painted in a gentle, shadow blue. Two images hang from the picture rail: the Gothic Perpendicular façade of King’s College Chapel, and a precise study of a water bird in profile. I sit at the desk and imagine writing here, in some quiet hour of the night; the page illuminated only by the amber glow of the desk lamp, the dark mass of Parker’s Piece an unintelligible void beyond the windows. A timeless vigil. I am deceived into feeling that, despite its many transformations, the hotel has never been anything other than it is now; that these suites have been here for centuries, as old as the university colleges framed on its walls.