‘Oh, we missed a trick there,’ says someone in a punt as we glide past them, champagne in hand. Yes, it seems even in this day and age there are some people who will do a tour of the Backs – the backside of the lovely university buildings – in Cambridge without a bottle of champagne. Who are these people? What do they want from us?
Not that we would have probably thought of bringing champagne – actually, English sparkling wine, which is even smarter – on a guided tour. Or maybe we would have. Whatever, here we are leaning back on our University Arms-branded cushions in our University Arms-branded punt while someone talks us through the history – from Henry VIII to Harry Potter – attached to these beautiful buildings, up to and including the story of Alan Turing, the man credited with ending the war by breaking the Nazi’s code, who was a big noise in Cambridge.
From geeky beginnings to war hero status to condemned for going about his gay business back before the fight had been fought and largely won, Turing casts a long shadow over Cambridge. Heck his name is even on the door of our suite at the University Arms, not to mention the fact he’s just been promoted to the backside of the new £50 note in a picture that makes him look cute, boyish. And the University Arms have just launched a Turing tour of the town, that’s how seriously Cambridge’s best hotel takes its gay – and now national! – history.
And you feel that University Arms – actually a relatively new hotel though you’d never know it thanks to a stately building and some very clever interiors courtesy of designer Martin Brudnizki – might actually have suited Mr. Turing. Probably a bit slick for him and his academic ways but there’s nothing showy about it. In fact, the vibe is distinctly academic with clever historic pictures, playful colours that just stepped out of a Farrow & Ball catalogue and Edwardian touches that highlight the wit and cleverness of the place: no music in the toilets, for instance, just audio of Wind in the Willows with Alan Bennett. Oh and books. Books everywhere.
Upstairs in the Alan Turing Suite, which has a spacious terrace looking across Parker’s Piece, a big old stretch of field where they sometimes have fun-fairs, the vibe is retro, but gently so. The bathroom has a big old stand-alone claw-foot bath, for instance and all the plumbing looks Edwardian (new Edwardian, you understand: there’s nothing shabby here), while the room treads a fine line between contemporary and antique, meaning it would work for one’s mother as much as it does for oneself. It’s all very English, but not off-puttingly so.
Downstairs in Parker’s Tavern – which looks out… guess where! – you feel like you could almost be in a smart university refectory with shiny parquet floors, sage-green walls and huge globe chandeliers. And pictures, pictures, pictures, mostly quite witty and fun rather than grand. With a brasserie-style menu and a commitment to local suppliers, it gets it all spot on – even the picnics! – while the bar next door is buzzing even on a Sunday afternoon with locals and visitors going face down into what are already quite legendary cocktails.
Cambridge has always been lovely. Of course it has. And it’s always had a history that is, by turns, fascinating and royal and bloody and funny. What it hasn’t had until recently is somewhere decent to stay. Those days are now, thankfully, over.
University Arms’ exclusive ‘Alan Turing Trail’ celebrates the life and legacy of Alan Turing, and highlights stories from famous figures throughout Cambridge’s long history in code-breaking and intelligence work. Perfectly paired with an overnight in The Turing Suite and a specially created code breaker cocktail.
Champagne Punting with University Arms. The hotel has partnered with renowned punting company Rutherford’s for a private University Arms punt. The hotel can arrange for couples to spend an afternoon on their very own private punt, sipping chilled Champagne, enjoying a Parker’s Tavern picnic or afternoon tea, as they glide along the River Cam.
Rates from £159 per room/night. Suites from £419.