Thursday, 29 October 2015

A day out in Cambridge courtesy of Essential Hotels

This weekend I went to Cambridge for the first time.     

Having never visited Cambridge, we knew there were a lot of bicycles, some fancy architecture and a river, but apart from that we had no idea where to go or what to see. In our hotel room were some tourist leaflets and a hardback book, beautifully photographed and crammed with useful information for everything from where to eat and shop to the history and culture of the city – and how to get there.

The Cambridge Hallmark Hotel is about 5 miles from the centre of Cambridge. It was clear from the literature and the several Park and Ride sites around Cambridge that driving into Cambridge is not encouraged. Luckily the hotel is served by a frequent bus which stops practically on the doorstep.
The ride took about 20 minutes and we got off right in the middle of the city armed with some notes we had made of galleries, eateries and sights we wanted to see in the day. The streets were busy and there were no signs of empty parking spaces and few car parks. The bus was definitely a good option.

I have a terrible sense of direction but this was not a problem in Cambridge because on almost every street corner is a map listing everything a tourist could be interested in including churches, shopping, museums and of course colleges.

It seems there are graduations all year round. It soon became clear that this was a graduation weekend, students in gowns wafted around the streets all day; sometimes escorted by proud family members and sometimes swarming in large groups in and around the grand entrances to the colleges. I understood on an emotional level, for the first time, a sense of how special it is to study in a place like this.

The first attraction on our list was Kettles Yard, after which we planned to stroll along The Backs en route to the Fitzwilliam Museum.  (‘The Backs’ needed to be explained to me: it is a picturesque walk along the backs of the colleges.) Unfortunately Kettles Yard was in the middle of a refurbishment,  but we were glad to have walked there down the charming, ancient streets, and over Magdalene Bridge for our first sight of the river and punts. 

Finally we stumbled by chance across the tiniest church, St Peter’s. When we had cooed over the church for a few minutes, we headed in the pouring rain in the general direction of The Backs. 

For the second time that day, a local stopped us and asked if we needed help and offered friendly and useful advice. We definitely felt that for a town so full of tourists and students it was lovely that visitors were not seen with resentment of as a nuisance.

Even though we were walking in the rain and the light was terrible, we still enjoyed the wonderful autumnal colours in the trees and the beautiful landscaping the colleges are set into. We stood and watched the punts glide by and continued past the colleges until we were near the museum. There were some attempts to persuade us to take a punt but they were not overly insistent and politely declining was accepted in a good manner by all. 

By this time we were ready to eat and metaphorically pressed our noses up against the windows of an array of very appealing bistros and restaurants nearby. However, we were more interested in a light lunch and opted for a sandwich in the museum itself.

The Fitzwilliam Museum was a delight. With a wide variety of collections, it reminded me of a small V and A. I was particularly pleased to see the modern and abstract art exhibition – some of which I believe were on loan from Kettles Yard.

In my naivety, I hadn’t realised the extent of the college buildings across the city. Everywhere we turned, we saw the stone buildings of the colleges reminiscent of the Cotswolds in their colour but larger in scale and grander in design, with their coats of arms, grand entrances and courtyards. I don’t think I could tire of wandering these streets, they were such a feast for the eyes. Just one word of warning: there are cyclists everywhere and cycles are a very quiet mode of transport. Look both ways and look again before crossing any road! 

There are many small streets with quirky shops and markets. Our favourite was an art and craft market. What a great collection of talented local artists there was! I lingered by many but resisted buying until I saw a leather stall. For £10, the trader cut me a length of leather and made me a bespoke belt from scratch. 
He promises me it will last forever.

When we needed an afternoon boost we paid a visit to Fitzbillies Café on Trumpington Street, a recommendation from our trusty book in the hotel. We were not disappointed. I had the most scrumptious rich, moist slice of chocolate cake and my husband thoroughly enjoyed a sticky Chelsea bun. Fitzwilliams have used the same tried and trusted recipe since 1920, judging by the popularity of the café, they would be foolish to change it.

Not in any of the literature we read, but a real wow moment for me, was when I saw the Lloyds Bank on Sidney Street. I have no idea if this on anyone else's radar, but the building is stunning. I was drawn in by the entrance and once inside I was treated to what I thought was an Art Deco marvel but it actually a Victorian building. I'll let the photos do the talking. 

As it got darker and wetter we took shelter in the nearest bar. What a lovely find it was too. We had dived into the Castle Bar, on St Andrew’s street, with a cool vibe and retro film / art house feel. We spent an hour or so enjoying our drinks, listening to the music and watching the world go by.

Because it was half term and because the city was full of graduating students we had tried in vain to book a table at a local, independent restaurant, let us be a lesson to you! We chose to eat at the nearby All Bar One. It’s been many years since I was in an All Bar One. I was very impressed. Clean and sparkling with great service we both enjoyed our food immensely. I had a new arrival to their winter menu: pulled lamb pappardelle. It was stunning, who would have thought?

We could easily have caught a bus back to the hotel, but the weather beat us and we took a taxi from one of the many easy to find ranks.
Before we checked out of the hotel in the morning, I had a lovely swim in their pool and enjoyed the fiery autumnal colours on the golf course.
There was so much we didn’t see and do – and so much we would love to see again, we are certain to return.

 For more information, and other hotels in the area please visit:  Essential Hotels: Cambridge

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