I remember my first overnight stay in Cambridge in 1981. I was lying in a small single bed in a hotel room near the river Cam, staring at the ceiling, listening to my mum and dad softly breathing in the double bed next to me. I was 17 and a triple room seemed the best option for a one-night stay before my interview at Emmanuel College. All went well. My mum recalls me fairly skipping out of the gates later the following day. I must have said something right as I soon received an offer to study for a degree in geography, starting in October 1982, as long as I reached the required grades at A Level. Dad was thrilled: he had read architecture at Emmanuel in the 1950s and the city had remained in his heart ever since.
Living in Cambridge as a student is very different to that of a resident or a tourist. I was certainly blinkered to real life, my days spent flitting between the Department of Geography and various college rooms where a succession of mugs of coffee with friends sustained me until lunchtime. It always seemed surreal to tuck into a plate of fried egg, beans and chips in the majestic setting of Emmanuel’s lofty dining hall.
We don’t live far from Cambridge now so often return as a day-tripper, leaving the car in the Park and Ride on the outskirts of the city. But I always feel the pull of Emmanuel and can’t help popping into the college to admire the architecture of Sir Christopher Wren’s chapel and take a quick walk around the duck pond.
A Cambridge visit is also necessary for getting our car serviced. Last year Dougie and I decided to make more of this mundane reason to come to Cambridge, by staying overnight. It worked brilliantly. The garage took our car in, gave us a lift into town and we picked it up the following morning. At last we could spend a less frenetic time in the city, without a rush to head back home before rush hour. We had a lovely stay at the welcoming Gonville Hotel and managed a night at the theatre, seeing a fantastic production of This House.
We did the same thing this year but thought we’d book a different hotel, to ring the changes. Cambridge isn’t exactly packed with gorgeous bijou accommodation but it’s getting better. Duke House is an exquisite little B&B, just the sort of place the city has been crying out for. It’s located in a terrace in Victoria Street, in the heart of the city centre, just behind my alma mater. With five luxury bedrooms and one self-catering apartment, it’s a tiny oasis in the bustling city. You wouldn’t think you were only a short walk from the bus station or the Grand Arcade shopping centre.
It has a fascinating history. Built in 1860, it was used both privately and commercially during Victorian times. For much of the 20th century it was a decorating and plumbing business. It took a right royal turn in 1967 when HRH Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, bought the property. As a student of architecture at Magdalene College at the time, he saw the house as his project, making many alterations which gave the property its character today. In the lobby of the hotel there are photos from a more recent visit from the Duke in 2012 when he came to see how the current owners, Liz and Rob Cameron, had changed his former home into luxury B&B accommodation. He stayed, quite fortuitously, in the guest room named The Duke.
Our room was The Wellington, on the second floor. Configured as a double during our stay, the aqua and ivory tones of this room are pretty and restful. Satellite TV and free WiFi are provided alongside homemade cake with the tea and coffee-making facilities. High quality bedding, all soft and squishy, plus a good-sized en-suite bathroom, ensured we had a very comfortable stay.
As we have discovered from other small establishments – Five Acre Barn in Suffolk and The Parisi hotel in York – it’s the extra personal touches which make all the difference. At Duke House, the Duchess sitting room is just heavenly. Guests can make themselves at home in front of the fire, choose a book to read and pour a coffee. In the evenings, a decanter of port is set out for a bedtime treat. This instantly brought back memories of the ruby liquid helping me finish essays as I grappled with the nuances of soil erosion. How ridiculously ‘Cambridge’ is that? It’s no wonder I just scraped through with a 2:2.
The treats continued in the morning with breakfast in the adorable dining room. Duke House prides itself on using local ingredients including apple juice from Watergull Orchards and bread and granola from their local bakery, Cob’s. We had made our choices the previous evening so everything was served at our chosen time, presented on delicate rose-patterned china. Delicious food and service with a smile and friendly chat.
We left shortly afterwards, closing the smart red door behind us, before heading to the taxi rank. Walking through the streets that morning, I felt a strong sense of belonging. Like my father before me, Cambridge exerts a pull on my heartstrings. Many years have passed since I first woke up on that Cambridge morning but when I look around now – at the buildings, the green spaces and the cyclists whizzing by – it feels very familiar. The intimacy of Duke House added to this contentment. I didn’t feel like a hotel guest. For just a short while, this little place was mine and I was a part of Cambridge once again.
Duke House, 1 Victoria Street, Cambridge CB1 1JP