(Even without the additional ‘free gift with purchase’ of a family designed scavenger hunt to track down the labs where your grandfather did his PhD before World War 2).
The Hungry One and I made our jaunt to Cambridge on the most recent long weekend. We were at the stage of packing up our flat where we couldn’t bear to stay, but didn’t want to go far. We could have battled crowds at airports and headed somewhere sunny. We could have rented a car and shot for the hills. But instead we went with the train and went to school.
If 24 hours in one of the prettiest university towns I’ve ever seen floats your boat, here’s a grand way to do it.
24 hours in Cambridge
12.30 pm Pre-train departure lunch- Gilbert Scott
There’s nothing like a proper lunch before a train journey. It’s steadying. Lucky then that express trains to Cambridge leave from Kings Cross Station and adjacent to the station is The Gilbert Scott; a grand dining room of grand vaulted ceilings, mahogany booths and white napery.
I’d been scratching after an excuse for a visit since it opened last year. This was perfect.
The Gilbert Scott is helmed by Marcus Wareing; a man with just a few stars attached to his name, who knows a thing or two about British produce. Named after the building’s original architect it draws inspiration from British food of yore; proved best by a quick glance at the dessert menu; trifles, eccles cakes and Eton mess all present and accounted for.
It’s the sort of place where you could easily be persuaded to have a basil fizz to start; a lurid Kermit-green beverage in a champagne glass, muddling together sugar syrup, herbs and booze in a frothily light confection.
It’s also a sensible spot to have a glass of Provencal rose while you consider what may come next.
A soft cooked duck egg (£15) balanced on a nest of summer beans and fresh almonds is a delightful exercise in textures; the yolk stickily soft, the almonds punctuating with crunch. It’s a great demonstration of how the vegetarian main course option on a menu can be made to shine.
But for those of us (like me) who find it impossible to look anywhere else when a chicken pie is listed on a menu, The Gilbert Scott’s rendition is pitch perfect. One single layer of shortcrust pastry, rich, crumbly and flakily perfect protects a simmering huddle of softly poached chicken flesh, hunks of ham hock and a sweet sauce of leeks.
Those hankering for a sweet send off may find themselves staring lustily over at the cream-teated top of the cherry, almond and coconut sponge trifle (£7.50).
Served in cut glass and light on the booze, the combination of flavours whisked me straight to the iced vo-vo biscuits I scoffed back in Australia each afternoon while I put down my satchel and started my homework. It would hard to think of a more fitting treat to scrape after with small spoons before you dash to catch a train to university.
The Gilbert Scott
St Pancras Renaissance Hotel
Euston Road, City of London, Greater London NW1 2AR
14:15 Train from Kings Cross to Cambridge
It’s a seven minute walk from The Gilbert Scott to the Kings Cross platforms. Buy your tickets from the machines in the main hall of the station. It will take around 45 minutes- an hour and 15 minutes to get to Cambridge, depending on how many stations the train deigns to stop at on its way. Nb, when they say the doors close 30 seconds before departure, they really mean it.
3.30 pm coffee pit stop at Massaro’s Artisan Deli
For those who worry about these sorts of things, yes there is decent coffee to be found in Cambridge. Lucky for those arriving into town just as a caffeine lull descends Mattaro’s punctuates the 20 minute flat walk from the train station into the centre of town . One wall is flanked by second hand books and the counter festooned with cakes and slices.
Out the back there are stern wooden booths where local students are perched nursing pots of tea with lap tops plugged in. There are also a range of ciabatta sandwiches made fresh if you’re peckish or pop in for brunch. The coffee is rich with caramel notes and while there’s a little lack of artifice in the pouring, the texture of the milk is spot on. And it sits happily at the half way mark of your walk. Perfect.
Massaro’s Artisan Deli
85 Regent Street, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB2 1AW
4 pm check into hotel: De Vere University Arms
Here’s our brief for a hotel: in the centre of town; with a little bit of character (wallpaper last seen in my Grandmother’s lounge room, velvet accents), a grand piano in the lobby, proper sized beds, a bath, a flat screen television and a kettle with two types of tea. And at a price that doesn’t make you swallow hard.
If that’s what your shopping list for a hotel in Cambridge also looks like, the De Vere University Arms may be a solid choice. Staff are sweet, sheets soft and the bath in a King room is long enough for a 6 ft 3 gentleman to slide into and warm up after being caught in a freak hail storm which flooded half the restaurants in town.
De Vere University Arms
Regent Street Cambridge, CB2 1AD
4.30 pm Wander around town
For me there was a special pleasure in knowing that the cobbled streets I wandered down in Cambridge were the very same ones that my late paternal grandfather walked down, some 75 years ago when he was studying. For others less interested in tracking down the Mond lab with its etching of a crocodile on the external wall the sight of the Wren Library, with its original manuscripts ofThe House at Pooh Cornershould suffice for a dose of wonder.
7 pm Dinner at Fitzbillies
There’s a confronting amount of chain restaurants tucked into the cobbled streets Cambridge; from Jamie’s Italian, through to Strada and Yo Sushi outposts. If you’re hungry for classic British food, cooked with care and consideration, you’d be hard pressed to go past Fitzbillies. Dinner here is served only Friday and Saturday night, the rest of the week Fitzbillies focuses on its day job; as a bakery/cafe and creator of some of the most famed Chelsea buns in the world.
The evening menu is the product of chef Rosie Sykes. It’s unpretentious, well seasoned and sound. The space is simple but charming.The walls are white board and blue tile, in a shade that brings to mind cartoon birds that assist damsels in distress. Shelves are stocked with house made preserves and the soda bread that’s made in the bakery out the back has a texture as gentle as mallow. Add a local bitter on the menu and it’s easy to see that The Hungry One is going to be happy.
As for you, if there’s the pork chop with roast fennel, cherry tomatoes and baby potatoes( £16.50) on the menu when you go, I highly recommend you order it.
Similarly, while the more obvious visual allure of chocolate filo stacked with chocolate cream and raspberries may draw you in, I cannot urge you enough; if there is chelsea bun ice cream is there on the menu, you must, simply must order a scoop before you leave.
Somehow the kitchen wizards at Fitzbillies have found a way to shepherd the chew of currants, romance of cinnamon and stickyness of golden syrup into an ball of iced cream. It’s a very sweet end to the loveliest of eves.
52A Trumpington Street Cambridge CB2 1RG
After that: go to a pub. Go back to your hotel and watch some of Die Hard 4.0 on tv with one eye open. Do what you need. I’ll see you again at 10 am tomorrow morning
10 am – Breakfast at Fitzbillies
It may feel strange to return to the location of your last night’s dinner for brunch the next day. It’s a little like bumping into a one night stand at the shops two hours after you fled. Yet there are at least three things that dinner at Fitzbillies won’t have offered, which you probably need to complete your time in Cambridge.
The first; bacon rolls. The sign outside sings its praises loud and clear. The rolls are white and fluffy. They’re un toasted and spread thickly with molten butter. The bacon inside straddles that delicate line between crisp and malleable. And the ketchup made here is a lightly spiced agro dolce delight (we checked to see if they’re selling it by the bottle, sadly at this stage they aren’t). For those who may have had a glass or two of red more than they should the night before, it’s a perfect salve.
The second; coffee. Fitzbillies does a fine line in coffee; flat whites are carefully made- and for those among us with indulgent tendencies (I may or may not be referring to The Hungry One), you can also order an affogato for breakfast.
The third; the chelsea bun itself.
For those who like their history in edible form, it’s perfect. The tale of how food writer Tim Hayward and his wife Alison came to breath fresh life into this 90 yearl old bakery is a corker. It’s one best told by Tim, in this piece here.
The bun is made of a yeast dough that’s adorned with lemon peel and cinnamon. Before it’s rolled into a squarish shape it’s spread with currants. It’s sticky with syrup in a way that makes a napkin and repeated licking of your fingers a necessity. Share if you must, but my recommendation is one for yourself, then a firm plan for a brisk walk.
52A Trumpington Street Cambridge CB2 1RG
Breakfast is served from 10 am on the weekend.
11.30 am Punting
The other option for a walk, is a punt. Cambridge’s version of a gondola ride is one of the best ways to see the stunning college’s, from the vantage of the river Cam.
For an easy trip under the Bridge of Sighs and Mathematical Bridges grab one of the tours being touted in the centre of town.
It’s touristy as heck and around £15 per person for a 45 minute tour on the water. It can be cramped when they try and squeeze three people into across into seats that might comfortably seat two (particularly if you’ve had a couple of chelsea buns). But the patter from the local guides is pretty delightful.
Nb, the tours tend to be less crowded before lunch time.
12.30 pm -Make your way back to the station
Catch the train back into London. No more buns. No more ice cream. No more pondering about what it would be like to ride bicycles off to class and participate in evensong and wear gowns to high table dinners. But on the upside; there’s no studying either.