What century is this?
Experiencing overlapping epochs in Cambridge, England
The first time I visited Cambridge in 2009, I sat in a pub and enjoyed a craft brew named “Octo-centennial”. It wasn’t a whimsical name: 2009 was actually the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University.
Coming from the US, where we had not so long ago celebrated our BI-centennial, this brew was, to say the least, humbling.
Americans seem to always have the same reaction when visiting Europe: Everything Here is So Old.
I have no doubt that the locals find it tiresome. Like a tall person constantly being told they are tall. “Yes, yes,” they say. “Would you like another lager?”
When I returned to Cambridge this year there were no centennials, but I was still lucky enough to see the town in a state of cross-century celebration.
I was there at the end of term, so there were graduations and much pageantry. Just walk the streets of Cambridge on a random afternoon and you would see professors dressed in garb that caused tourists like me to double-take and reach for my phone. More than once I wondered what century I had dropped into. Or what century they had dropped out of. Or whether I should curtail my Dr. Who habit.
May Balls in June
As it happened, in addition to graduation season, I was there during one of the more celebratory times of year in Cambridge: The May Balls.
The May Balls are an annual event that takes place every June.
That wasn’t a typo.
Asking some local friends about why the May Balls are in June, they rolled their eyes and said simply “ah, its a Cambridge thing, try to keep up.”
I did surmise after some prodding that the May Balls (in June) did at one time take place in May, and while the dates moved back over the years, the name has not adjusted with the dates.
Some traditions are more entrenched than others, and Cambridge is apparently very good at tradition and entrenchment. The Balls themselves are big end-of-term parties hosted by each of the Cambridge Colleges.
Some Colleges, depending on their wealth, might spend hundreds of thousands, or millions of pounds on their May Ball (in June), complete with big name bands and huge fireworks displays.
About the Colleges
Perhaps I should attempt to explain the difference between the University and the Colleges. Cambridge University is a university, just as it sounds. If you graduate from Cambridge you get a Cambridge University degree (and get to wear a fancy gown!)
But within the University are many Colleges, and each student belongs to a College and graduates from the University. Confused yet?
As an American I can now define a College at Cambridge as sort of a dorm, sort of a fraternity, sort of a sorority, and sort of something we don’t have in the US. Think of the four houses of Hogwarts (without the Sorting Hat) and that comes close.
My friend Jenny, a Cambridge grad, exhaustively explained Colleges to me as much as she could. And, having finally given up on my understanding it fully, was kind enough to instead invite me to watch the Trinity College May Ball fireworks show from an ancient hill atop the town. In June.
Thank you, Jenny. The fireworks were grand and you tried to explain Cambridge to an American. We should give you a medal.
Still, my favorite Cambridge moment would happen the next morning.
May Ball Survivors
I’m an early riser. And I was staying in a hotel right in the middle of town. As Jenny had explained to me, a rite of passage of the May Balls was partying all night long. There would be a photo taken around 6 am of the “May Ball Survivors” before everyone headed home. Being in that photo was a major point of pride, and pretty much everyone held out til the end.
Well, while no one had invited me to a May Ball, I was nonetheless there at my window with a large cup of coffee at 6 am, watching them all trudge home. Tuxedoed. Ball-gowned. Some on bikes, some on foot. Stumbling home while the rest of Cambridge was waking up and heading to work.
From my hotel perch above one of the main lawns in town (Parker’s Peace), I watched the whole early morning reverse commute take place, and it was something to see:
By my estimate, formal-wear heading home outnumbered regular outfits heading to work about 5:1.
I won’t lie, it was a little surreal.
What century is this?
Cambridge is a town that understands and embraces its storied past. While I would normally snurl my nose at this level of ostentation, on this morning it made sense.
Each culture has the ritual, norms and costumes that define it. In fact, many of the rituals of modern university life began at Cambridge over the past 800 years. While many of those rituals have moved on in other parts of the world, Cambridge — as noted — is particularly good at hanging on to tradition. And I think that should be celebrated.
This is Cambridge’s culture, norms and costumes. And I like it.