Most visitors to Cambridge don’t see much of the university’s interior. The colleges are strict about who gets in and out of the gates in order to protect students from massive tourist crowds. As such, I was excited to receive an invitation to attend a few special events at Newnham College at Cambridge University. The chance to get beyond the exterior and experience college life firsthand was a unique one, and I couldn’t wait.
To travel to Newnham, First Capital Connect offered me a ticket on its Cambridge Express train from London King’s Cross to Cambridge. Fast and non-stop, the service had me at my destination in less than an hour. From the station I took a bus into the city center, from where it was a short walk through the market, past King’s College and Queen’s College, and alongside the Mathematical Bridge to Newnham College.
Once there, I met up with my guide for the evening. She took me on a tour of the grounds, telling me the history of Newnham, which was founded in 1871 as women’s college. As we walked by the beautiful 19th century buildings, she recounted the names of famous alums like Sylvia Plath and Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
After the tour we attended a special lecture by another famous alum, Dame Alison Richard, the former Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University. She talked about her career path, from research in Madagascar to working as provost of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She also touched upon some of the differences between higher education in the UK and the USA, which was particularly interesting to me as an expat.
Being at a lecture in an academic environment made me feel like I was in college all over again, save for the Port that was served afterwards. Maybe that was another of the big differences between the education systems in the two countries. I think I would have enjoyed extracurricular lectures in the U.S. more had there been wine involved.
After the lecture the room filled up with more students. They enjoyed pre-dinner Sherry and mulled wine before the annual Graduate Christmas Formal Hall Dinner. I joined in the festivities, talking with people from locations as far flung as Croatia and China as a harpist played music in the background. I even met a girl that had gone to Brown with me. Small world.
After drinks we all filed out into the Newnham College courtyard and walked to another building. There we entered a large room with long tables set for Christmas dinner in Cambridge.
The only other time I had attended a formal hall dinner was years ago in Oxford when I visited a friend that was studying abroad there. From that experience I knew that there were several quirky rules, including wearing black robes and waiting to sit until a college authority figure had given a short welcome speech.
This particular formal hall also included a song by a choir and traditional Christmas crackers. Dinner consisted of roasted red pepper soup, turkey with pork and chestnut stuffing, and plum pudding with brandy sauce. Wine was BYO, with a £1 corkage fee payable at the door.
The dinner was lively, complete with visiting male students taking every opportunity to drop pennies in wine glasses and yell “the Queen is drowning!”. The point of this bizarre exercise was that the person that the glass belonged to had to chug their wine to save the Queen. (My attempts to do the same with an American penny did not go over so well. Sorry, Abraham Lincoln.).
After dinner the group moved down the corridor to the Newnham College bar, where there was a party complete with Santa, elves, and—this being Britain—lots of booze. At the end of the evening there were prizes awarded for the naughtiest and nicest partygoers, and at midnight the crowd dispersed to continue its revelry elsewhere.
My visit to Newnham College at Cambridge University was a great way to experience UK student life firsthand. I was grateful to have been able to get past the gates and immerse myself in an evening of tradition and festivities. It made me miss my collegiate days enough that I was tempted to pursue another degree. If only it wouldn’t interfere with my travel schedule.