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Hogwarts high life

Cambridge is where D began his brief visit to England and also where his trip ended. Because his friend is a postdoc at one of the thirty-one distinct colleges that comprise Cambridge University, D had a chance to peek behind the curtain and experience this venerable institution of higher learning as both a tourist and an insider.

The oldest of the existing colleges was founded in the thirteenth century. It was unclear to D how far back the university’s traditions date, but they are myriad, and quite a few feel rather discordant with the modern, commercial town that has blossomed around the historic university buildings.

For example, not only is access to many university buildings restricted to members of the university community, which makes sense, but also many of the streets and footpaths that run through the various college quads are off-limits to the general public. From his friend’s apartment there were only a handful of routes D was allowed to traverse to reach town center; the most direct options were all off-limits. “If you dressed and acted the part, you’d probably be alright,” D’s friend mused as he advised him to take a roundabout alternative rather than trespass on college property.

What’s more, the quads themselves are off-limits even to most members of the university community. No ultimate Frisbee was played on those well-manicured lawns. “He must be fairly important,” D’s friend said, pointing out a lone figure crossing the quad at King’s College – “I’m a fellow, but I’m not allowed on this grass.”

New to the university himself, D’s friend still hadn’t fully grown into all the privileges and responsibilities belonging to this elite institution conferred on him. “I’m a fellow,” he would say, showing his ID card, “and he’s…uh…he’s, um, with me.” Not only was D thus able to enter various colleges, but also – as a guest of one of the university’s fellows – he was exempt from paying for the privilege of touring King’s College Chapel and the university’s other historic landmarks.

The most unique of D’s many pleasant experiences in Cambridge was the high table dinner his second night. D’s friend was scheduled to give a brief talk to the other fellows in his college, and he dressed the part, donning a flowing black robe over his dress clothes. After a round of cocktails in a room reserved exclusively for the fellows’ use, D’s friend “borrowed” an unused robe from the fellows’ dressing room for D to slip into. Shortly thereafter, a woman came in with a gong to announce that dinner was ready, and the fellows trooped to the dining room upstairs where the college’s underclassmen stood at attention at long tables, dressed in their formal clothes.

The college master was absent, but D sat next to her stand-in – a professor who had been at Cambridge for fifty years and whose research had taken him to many of the places in Africa and Latin America where D has lived. The professor gave a two-word benediction in Latin to signal the beginning of the meal; everyone sat, and would remain seated for the better part of the next two hours until he rose again and closed the meal with another Latin phrase. It did not require an abundance of imagination to mentally link the high table Cambridge dinner to scenes from Harry Potter.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fascinating tidbits about this university. I had no idea it was like that. I wish I could see a photo of you in your robe at that dinner table, D! Guess I’ll have to finally watch Harry Potter!

    December 1, 2017
    • There’s a pic of me and my buddy in our robes on FB :)

      December 1, 2017

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