Review by Fiona Duncan, published 11th May 2010.
Oxford undergraduate Charlie Ramsay noticed that many college rooms, which students were asked to clear at the end of each term, were left unoccupied during the holidays. Though the colleges ran effective conference businesses, none had the idea of letting their spare rooms for bed and breakfast. Perish the thought. But eventually, in 2007, Ramsay managed to persuade an enterprising bursar at Keble College to take the plunge and www.universityrooms.co.uk, the website he built to advertise and administer bed and breakfast bookings, was up and running.
It was a good move all round; today 11 Oxford and 10 Cambridge colleges are signed up to the scheme, with more in the offing, plus 18 other universities across 15 UK cities, including London.
The model is simple. Ramsay's website includes a booking system that college staff can access at any time. He administers and publicises the service; the universities operate it. Feedback from guests generates a star rating for each institution so viewers can tell at a glance how popular it is.
Sidney Sussex gets 4.1 out of five, which is just about spot on, I'd say. I'm paying £45, including breakfast, for what is classed as a standard single room, with separate shared loo and shower room (rooms with ensuite facilities are available, as are twin-bedded rooms; and children are accepted) in the old part of the college.
According to the college porter who shows me the way, this is third-year law student Dasha's room and her surname is above the door. I feel rather guilty, occupying what is rightfully Dasha's space.
Dasha's light-filled eyrie has a large window, a Victorian fireplace, pale green walls, a basin, desk, armchair, small table with basic tea and coffee things and a kettle. On the bed (patterned duvet, two white pillows) are towels and a little bag of toiletries. The room is clean and functional but has bags more character than the average budget hotel. And how many budget hotels have views over tranquil lawns and the Master's garden? In how many can you wander through quads, picnic on lawns and pop into a dark and lovely chapel where Oliver Cromwell's head is buried in a secret spot known only to the Master? Or indeed breakfast in the morning in Sidney Sussex's splendid stuccoed, gilded and galleried Hall, helped by friendly uniformed staff?
Sadly, dinners in Hall are not on the menu for b & b guests, but the college porters will point you in the right direction for food. Like the best sort of old school hotel concierges, they are both humorous and knowledgeable, and on hand to help day or night.
I loved my time in Cambridge and at Sydney Sussex. Actually it wasn't my first night there. The last time was many years ago, before it admitted women, and involved an open window and a ladder in the dead of night. But that's another story.