Rosie Paterson shares tips for those looking to enjoy a getaway in Cambridge.
It’s virtually impossible to untangle Cambridge the place from Cambridge the university, but there was a town here, long before the students descended. 334 years before, to be precise. Though there is evidence of an earlier Roman fort and Anglo-Saxon trading, a town proper was not established until the Vikings appeared in Britain, in 875 AD.
In 1068, two years after his own successful invasion, William of Normandy built a castle on nearby Castle Hill; between 1120 and 1131, Henry I granted Cambridge its first two charter. Its distinctive Round Church dates to this time.
In 1209, the collegiate-style University was established by scholars fleeing persecution in Oxford—some of their colleagues had been hanged by town authorities for supposedly killing a woman, without first informing the ecclesiastical authorities (as was the norm at the time). It is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the fourth-oldest surviving in the world.
Today, there are 31 separate colleges: Peterhouse is the oldest and King’s (above) arguably the most famous. It’s grand, golden, Gothic facade is hard to miss as you walk, or perhaps cycle, through town—access to the general public is allowed on Wednesday.
What to do
Beyond the assorted colleges, there’s still a lot to do. Top of your list should be Kettle’s Yard (below) — the former home of Tate director and collector, Jim Ede and his wife, Helen. The house — actually a converted terrace — is a breath of calming fresh air. All bare wooden boards, white walls, simple furniture that somehow reminds you of the far away coast and an impressive collection of 20th century art.
The Fitzwilliam Museum is well worth a visit to. If the weather allows, picnic on the banks of the pretty River Cam or organise a private punt.
If there’s space in your weekend bag, stock up on second hands books at Sarah Key and a bottle or two at Cambridge Wine Merchants. Alternatively, buy a new bag altogether—this is the home to The Cambridge Satchel Company, after all.
Where to eat
Don’t even think about doing, or eating, anything else until you’ve treated yourself to a Chelsea bun from Fitzbillies (there are multiple stores). They’re the best in town, possibly the country. Casual, gastropub Pint Shop, Novi and pub The Mill are all popular with locals. Book in advance, especially on a Sunday.
Where to stay
University Arms hotel enjoys an enviable position: it’s a 10 minute walk from the train station, a two minute walk from the centre of Cambridge and it overlooks Parker’s Piece—the city’s largest plot of common land (previously owned by Trinity College)—which was gloriously quiet and calm when I visited.
It’s been a hotel since 1834 and original features remain, including the sprung dance floor in the ballroom and two beautifully carved, wooden fireplaces. Cambridge blue dominates throughout and some of the corridor carpets are striped to perfectly match the various ties. If you’re wondering why it all smells so good? That’ll be the bespoke D R Harris geranium scent, which also perfumes the bathroom amenities.
Ask for a suite overlooking the park. The bathrooms are a highlight—especially the gleaming, monochrome tiles and claw-foot, freestanding tubs.
Downstairs the restaurant—Parker’s Tavern—is an attraction in itself. Head chef Tristan Welch’s menu manages to tread the fine line between refined and hearty. The homemade spaghetti bolognese is worth a mention, as is the build-your-own sundae on the pudding menu. In keeping with its surroundings, the room is designed to look like a university college dining room.
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