In my opinion, there is no bad season to visit Cambridge. In the Winter, you may be treated to walks across Parker’s Piece, dusted in snow flurries. In Spring, the flowers blossom and the air smells of freshly cut grass from the greens. For summer, punting on the river and watching the local children jump off bridges into the River Cam for sweet relief from the heat, is the norm. When Autumn rolls around, the city comes back to life as students return to the University and the air becomes crisp and the temperature begins to require additional layers. Ask anyone and you’ll hear the same thing. There is no best time to visit. Anytime is a good time. Every day, every moment, is special in this town. That could be why so many filmmakers have chosen this particular spot in the UK to act as the backdrop for their movies. If you want to indulge in a little Cambridge excitement before your visit, stream Chariots of Fire, The Theory of Everything, and Some Kind of Beautiful. Although nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare you for visiting the city in person.
Having visited Cambridge several times, over the past two decades, I have a list of my favourite pubs, my secret shopping spots and the best place to grab an early morning Chelsea Bun. It wasn’t until last year, however, that I discovered the joys of a hotel that perfectly reflects the majestic city. Walking into the University Arms, Cambridge, I am always confronted with two thoughts. I can’t imagine what this place must have looked like in 1834. But, in that same moment I think, I can imagine someone from 1834 feeling not entirely out of place in this entrance. This is all to say that the designer and architect that renovated this old beauty into a contemporary marvel in 2018, that cost upwards of £80 million, did it with style, grace and a respect for what was and what is to come. They created a timeless space that is dedicated, at every turn, to paying homage to the history of the building and the city around it.
Immediately, as we enter the hotel, I showcase a childlike glee at recommending my boyfriend go to the toilets, to wash his hands. I don’t think he was impressed with me acting like a mother hen, but he soon discovered why I was so excited for such an event. The hotel is very much centred around celebrating the famous faces of Cambridge’s past, present and future. In the restaurant toilets, instead of music, they have audio books playing over the sound system. On my first visit to the hotel, I was read Winnie the Pooh as I washed my hands. For this visit, it was Wind in the Willows. If you’re late returning to your friends for drinks or dinner, you can simply explain that the audio book had reached a pivotal point that you couldn’t walk away from. Yes, this has happened to me, waiting behind to get to the end of a chapter that is a personal favourite.
After we washed our hands thoroughly, we returned to the desk for check-in. You see, we are visiting the Cambridge Arms under very different circumstances than the last. There have been a few changes.
The hotel has just reopened, having been closed because of the pandemic, Covid 19. The whole country is coming back into service and Cambridge Arms have swung open their doors and welcomed back visitors, old and new, with the same level of incredible service on offer, but with a side of extra safety. Hand sanitising stations are scattered around the property, staff wear visors and masks to protect themselves and others at check in; valet service is currently out of commission, but the car park below the building is open for those that need to park their cars for an overnight stay; and each room is outfitted with a sanitising welcome kit, complete with mask, gloves and wipes to use during your visit. Oh, and the gym is by appointment only. That may seem like a long list of changes, but in reality, you will be hard pressed to notice anything that makes you stay feel any less luxurious or special as usual. The world is a changed place, but wearing masks, using hand sanitiser regularly and socially distancing from one and all are the new normal, sadly.
For our one night in Cambridge, we stayed in the Darwin Suite, a beautiful room featuring two stained glass floor to ceiling windows offering an unparalleled view over Parker’s Piece. Separating the living room from the bedroom, there stands an enormous bookcase overflowing with work from local authors. It’s become a habit now for me to instantly skim the books and take notes of which ones to order on Amazon before we leave.
We quickly unpack and head down for lunch in Parker’s Tavern, which overlooks Parker’s Piece. This is both a local and visitor’s favourite. On the day we arrive, Parker’s Piece isn’t overflowing with people as it is sweltering. It’s a balmy 95 degrees and on our drive in we spotted the majority of locals on the river, either in it or about to be. With this heat and humidity, we were thankful for an indoor dining experience. However, the yellow outdoor chairs of Parker’s Tavern looked oh so tempting. We’ll most definitely return for autumn/winter, to enjoy a lunch on the grassed terrace with mugs of cocoa in hand.
The tables in Parker’s Tavern were socially distanced, but there wasn’t a great change of atmosphere as a result. The restaurant has always felt airy and open. Now, the attendants just make sure that there are a a few more empty tables than usual. You feel completely safe and at ease as you dine. In this current climate, that’s a big plus point. Now, I must say I was glad there weren’t too many tables of people close to ours, once I saw my order of a main course arrive. The Parker’s Tavern burger is a thing of legend. I’ve heard plenty of people talk about it, but have never seen it for myself, neither in person or pictured. When the towering sandwich arrived at the table, they reached to place it in front of my boyfriend, and I nearly let them. It was a monster of a burger and I immediately felt as if I had ordered above and beyond what my stomach could take on. I’m torn here. Do I tell you I was a lady that could only finish half the burger and surrendered or do I admit that every bite was as good as you could imagine and there wasn’t a crumb left on the plate? I think you know how this story ends.
With full tummies, we decided to walk off our lunches. The city felt somewhat less busy than usual, but there was still a buzz about the place. For the most part, people were considerate of social distancing and every store required a face mask to enter. We spent most of our time strolling the cobblestone streets, wishing we could go into the colleges for further exploration, but admiring the architecture all around us nonetheless. The heat became a bit intense and we decided to once again take advantage of the air conditioning at the hotel, and went back for a cold shower and an afternoon nap. That evening we were set to experience a rather unique date night, probably the most romantic date night I’ve had in the UK. Pizza, punting and champagne are now my favourite summer activity in Cambridge. But that’s a whole different story that you’ll need to read about.