Glass gets clever and goes to Cambridge

YOU may only have a weekend but every now and again a short break from London becomes an irresistible need. Somewhere close and easy to reach but also non-metropolitan, different to London: antique charm would go down well, with a touch of Harry Potter thrown in for added ambience, plus a choice of decent eateries and sights to see.

Such a place is Cambridge; where all the really clever people hang out; where begowned students sit in rows at long tables to eat by candlelight beneath a high table. Such a scene is easy to imagine when wandering around the grounds of King’s College or Trinity. Ancient spires really do top cloistered havens of arcane learning but, sadly, the owls rarely carry messages and quidditch is just a computer game.

You can stay, on a bed-and-breakfast basis, at colleges which rent out their spare rooms. University Rooms handles accommodation and my night at Westminster College proved a lovely surprise. The atmosphere is wonderfully sedating, the refurbished rooms spacious and spotless, while breakfast in a grand, wood-panelled dining room of a theological college provided a peaceful beginning to the day ahead.

The foyer of Tamburlaine HotelThe learned-looking foyer of Tamburlaine Hotel

Fast trains with Great Northern Railway from Kings Cross bring you to Cambridge in around 45 minutes and it only takes another three minutes to walk from the train’s platform to the doors of the Tamburlaine. It looks like a shiny new hotel from the outside but the foyer’s bookcase of learned and faded tomes is a reminder that Cambridge is nothing if not an ancient university town. The hotel also has a most stylish Garden Room for afternoon teas and cocktails, with wallpaper that conjures up a quixotic scene of oriental bliss.

Bedrooms are a good size and everything works in the way you hope they will – no fiddling with insanely complex TV remotes and sadistic shower controls. Meals at the Tamburlaine are served in a large dining area with a central bar and open kitchens; at breakfast, the smashed avocado on toast is as smashing as it sounds and the venison on the evening menu is flawlessly prepared.

The sitting room in Tamburlaine Hotel banishes Cambridge's winter climateThe sitting room in Tamburlaine Hotel banishes Cambridge’s winter climate

With limited time in the city, a good way to spend it is to take one of the tours offered by Cambridge Visitor Information Centre. Experienced guides take you around the city centre and its colleges, telling stories about history and famous characters. Punting on the Cam and passing under the gothic Bridge of Sighs – chauffeured or self-hire – is a fun way to view the fine college buildings and their spacious lawns

Cambridge Food Tour is another satisfying way to experience the city, especially the tours that kick off over glasses of prosecco in Thirsty. Walkable from town, Thirsty is worth a visit in its own right: a wine bar/shop with bare tables and shelves filled with small producer wines and craft beers. The food tour escorts you to Fitzbillie’s bakery, a famous breakfast nook for the cognoscenti, and takes in market stalls politely plying handmade chocolates, falafels and Venezuelan arepas. A pit stop is also made at Aromi – a Sicilian pizza place where the outside queues are a testimony to its success – and the glorious Cambridge Cheese Company where amazing aromas hit the nostrils as you enter.

The food tour will open your eyes to the Mill Road area of Cambridge, a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with not a mortarboard or gown in sight but lots of places for snacking and drinking. Culinaris is a Hungarian deli filled with delicacies and Calverley’s Brewery is so good that they run out of their craft beers that can only be produced in small quantities on a weekly basis.

The grand exterior of Hotel Felix in CambridgeThe grand exterior of Hotel Felix in Cambridge

For a country-life setting to your escapade from London, The Felix Hotel is located north of the city and built around a substantial 19th-century family house that had been built for a surgeon at Addenbrookes Hospital. Two modern wings have been added and they contain large comfortable bedrooms, individually decorated with king-size beds, and nice touches such as fresh milk in the fridge (no scrabbling with sachets of powdered milk or long-life capsules that won’t open).

The Felix Hotel is set in manicured gardens, perfect for afternoon tea, and the corridors and rooms are filled with distinctive artwork. The dining room, Graffiti, has pleasantly genteel aspects –  an open fire and cosy seating areas  – dramatically enlivened by giant-sized prints and photographs. Tasty queen olives and salted almonds for nibbling are served while waiting for your food.

Cosy comfort at Graffiti restaurant in Felix HotelCosy comfort at Graffiti restaurant in Felix Hotel

If hotel dining isn’t your thing, a snug little place with a long history is The Oak Bistro; once a coaching house on the road to London and now a listed building. It’s a welcoming place inside, with brick walls, unadorned tables and a central wine rack which divides the main room into two areas. In warm weather, the attractive garden has tables outside. The menu is classic bistro style food: salmon en croute; halibut matched with bubble and squeak; Baileys and chocolate pannacotta. This is the way restaurants used to be but you’ll have to catch that train from Kings Cross to find one that is open for business and flourishing.

The Oak Bistro takes you back to the way good restaurants used to be likeThe Oak Bistro takes you back to the way good restaurants used to be like

by Sean Sheehan



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