The Varsity in Cambridge does an excellent job of hiding in plain sight. Unless you know it and love it – and if you visit it you will do so forever – it is easy to miss, despite being a five-star, five-storey hotel in the heart of an ancient low-rise city whose university was founded 707 years ago. Located on Thompson’s Lane, a stone’s throw from shoppers on Bridge Street and punters on the River Cam, the Varsity is coated in the warm honey-glow of an English summer evening when I arrive. A doorman clad in full top-hatted regalia, bows and tips his brow as the door swings open. The next morning he’s up early, sweeping the pavement outside with the studied air of a college porter, Lord of all he surveys.
The Varsity is a supremely pleasing mix of the genteel and the modern. Each of the 48 rooms, from the super king rooms to the fourth- and fifth-floor suites, is named after distinguished fellows of the city. The luxury level is high but not glaringly so – there is no bling here, just good understated British quality, as evidenced by the framed screen prints of Penny Black postage stamps that embellish the corridors.
Some may tout the scenic splendour awaiting anyone who boards the London Eye, or ventures to the top of the Rockefeller Centre in midtown Manhattan, but for sheer crystallised historical beauty, it is hard to beat the view that awaits you from the rooftop bar of the Varsity.
Relax with good company and a cold drink while gazing west at St. John’s College, south over the spires of King’s College, finished during the reign of King Henry VIII, and east over Jesus Green, filled with hazy, lazy students. A floor below is SIX, a brasserie that serves good cocktails and hosts breakfast, brunch, afternoon tea and dinner. This writer chose a chargrilled leg of Saffron Walden lamb with roasted vegetables, followed by a generous slice of Sicilian lemon tart with crème fraiche.
The next morning, I met bright and early with Will Davies. The Varsity’s co-founder fell sideways into hotel ownership, having met his business partner Tariq over a coffee in west London. Both were disillusioned, Will in his role as an overworked state-school teacher and Tariq as an NHS surgeon weighed down by paperwork. Both wanted to do something different, and Will mentioned his dream of buying an old glassworks in Cambridge, and transforming it into a boutique gym.
“The idea was based on this great designer gym I once visited in New York’s Upper West Side,” he says. Tariq loved the idea, and the two joined forces, hiring Conran and Partners to design the space. Business flooded in: the gym is small but perfectly proportioned and boasts serious residents, including Olympic rowing legend James Cracknell. A popular spa was added, as well as a bijou sauna/steamroom/jacuzzi that looks out over the River Cam. Both use the gym often: Will, an amateur boxer from his days studying at Oxford University, still gives classes in pugilism to local students.
Once the gym and spa was up and running, the pair turned their attention to owning a hotel. Even then, they relied on fate giving them a hefty nudge.
They bought a ramshackle building next to the gym that had gone to rack and ruin, and built a luxury boutique hotel that, frankly, beats spots off its competitors.
Not that it was easy. This was 2008, and within months of getting funding, the financial crisis hit. In London, banks wobbled, and the business had to fight to stop them calling in their loans. “It was horrendous, but our perseverance pulled us through,” he says. A number of boutique hotels have sprung up since then, but the Varsity remains the big dog in town, an oasis of class and consistency.
Talking of which, the Varsity is of course dog-friendly. Will doesn’t actively advertise the fact, but any customer is welcome so long as they not too boisterous, take advantage of the proper toilet facilities, and clean up after themselves. So much for human customers – their dogs are welcome too.
Will’s own sleek little beam of delight is Ralphie, a miniature dachshund. And what a scamp he is. After chatting in the River Bar, the Varsity’s main evening restaurant, which serves excellent wine and great steaks sourced from an organic farm in Suffolk, we swing by the main office to say hello to the little pup.
Ralphie has one of those butter-wouldn’t-melt faces, the type that says ‘who, me?’ after you’ve caught him polishing off a tray of biscuits and a Beef Wellington. The little guy is the hotel’s sweetheart, beloved by the staff, and regularly found on the roof, sniffing around for scraps and morsels.
True to type – ‘Dachshund’ translates from the German as ‘badger-dog’, he burrows down rabbit holes during walks across the Fens, and has a proper sweet-tooth, apt to raid the larder if someone has left chocolate lying about. A few weeks before we meet, Will rushed Ralphie to the vet after finding him tucking into a box of whisky-laced choccies. He was fine, of course. Scamps, and Ralphie is one of the best in his class, a pup that revels in his role as the chien de résidence at the Varsity Hotel, always survive scrapes and scuffles intact. Not to mention a little bit fatter.
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