It is telling that we in Britain tend to refer to universities established in the Victorian era and the early twentieth century as ‘red brick’ institutions, and to those founded since the 1960s as ‘plate glass’. Regardless of the studies they provide or the way they provide them, what really distinguishes these newer faculties from the ancient universities like Cambridge, we seem to be saying, is their lack of dreaming stone spires.
It need hardly be said that the physical environment is not the only thing that defines Cambridge as a place to study – but you might be surprised at just how much of an impact the limestone arches and crumbling towers make on students like me. If you belong to the vast majority of people here and are not used to such impressive surroundings, they can seem rather daunting. They are not just a reminder of Cambridge’s illustrious history; they are history, standing firm across the centuries and watching without emotion as the likes of Oliver Cromwell, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Virginia Woolf scurry on and off stage. For those of us with no immediate plans to behead the monarch or discover the laws of thermodynamics, such connections are not just surreal. They’re a tad scary. How can we possibly be expected to live up to the expectations of a university whose centuries-old cloisters once housed the great figures of history?
Understandably, the power of Cambridge’s heritage is sometimes seen as discouraging to applicants from less privileged backgrounds. But to get rid of Cambridge’s occasionally intimidating reputation, you’d need to burn down half the city and sack most of the fellows who produce such amazing work. You’d need to stop it being Cambridge. The way to ensure Cambridge can be both historic and accessible is to make the history itself a little more welcoming.
And what better way to do that than by breaking bread with each other and enjoying the friendship and fine conversation that come with a good meal? On the face of it, formal hall is just as intimidating as Cambridge’s other traditions. It really is a bit weird. A Latin grace that we all pretend to understand; a candlelit hall with portraits of noted alumni leering down at you seductively; all kinds of rules to get used to, from the order of knives to use down to the times you have to finish a drink in one gulp. At my college, Jesus, there’s a particularly arcane and mysterious ritual associated with formal dinner. When the fellows leave, the last one out turns and bows to the hall – at which point the assembled students applaud and whistle with appreciation. If the fellow doesn’t bow, legend has it, you’re allowed to throw your fork at them in retribution, but only so long as it doesn’t hit the precious woodwork around the door frame (in other words, so long as it gets them square in the face).
Outsiders tend to be rather taken aback by all this tradition surrounding the most simple of social activities, the evening meal. But by focusing college tradition around such a common, such an enjoyable, event, we make tradition itself that little bit less exclusive. There’s something about sharing a meal that brings you closer as a group. The wine probably helps. And sharing a meal under the wing of an age-old institution like Jesus College brings you closer to the institution, too.
The continuity of that practice of eating in hall in your gown ties to you to all the remarkable people who have studied here for the last eight hundred years. But although that pedigree might be a frightening prospect to live up to, the over-the-top and ritualistic aspects of formal hall remind you of something crucial. You might not feel worthy of it all – but neither did they. You might feel like your background doesn’t quite fit with all this traditional embellishment – but neither did they. The ceremonies are so over the top, the idea of lobbing your forks at a bearded scholar so ridiculous, that of course they were never meant to feel natural. Even two centuries ago, when that great father of economics Thomas Malthus studied here, this stuff wasn’t supposed to make sense, and he probably felt as piqued by them as we do now. Reminding ourselves that those great figures of the past were young once, and almost certainly sniggered at the same things we find inexplicable about Cambridge, ties us to them in a way that cold, stone towers never could.
That’s why it’s so important that students at Cambridge Immerse get a taste for the same fine dining experiences that Cambridge students themselves have the privilege to enjoy. Eating in the wood-panelled and chequered-floored halls of some of the university’s oldest colleges, students on the Immerse programme aren’t just being pampered (although it is, needless to say, delicious). They’re being encouraged to think of themselves as worthy of the same kind of education as the aristocrats and elites of history who deserved it considerably less. They’re being welcomed into an otherwise daunting institution in the way that parents and neighbours have always known best: with a warm basket of bread and a splash of something refreshing; with open arms and a laid table.
Luke Ilott is a History student at Jesus College of the University of Cambridge.