The University of Oxford, having existed since at least 1096, is the oldest university in the English speaking world, and at 807 years old, Cambridge is not much younger. As you might expect from such ancient and venerable institutions, there are a number of Oxbridge traditions which go back hundreds of years and are still observed today. Read on to get a taste of some of the quirky customs and sumptuous ceremonies that you will experience as a student at Oxford or Cambridge.
The rivalry between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge dates back to Cambridge’s foundation in 1209; a full 283 years before the discovery of America! It is said that the University of Cambridge was founded after a dispute in Oxford between the university and the townspeople led to a number of its scholars abandoning the city. A group of them settled 66 miles away in Cambridge and, even as life in Oxford returned to normal, the scholars remained behind to start a rival university. This age old spirit of competition manifests itself in several ways; foremost amongst them are the classic annual Boat Race and the Varsity Rugby Match.
The Boat Race, dating back to 1829, takes place close to Easter each year along the Thames between Putney and Mortlake in South West London. Cambridge set the fastest ever time, completing the 4.2 mile course in 16 minutes and 19 seconds in 1998. The teams race in eight-oared rowing boats, with a ninth crew member, known as the coxswain, steering from the stern. Oxford wear dark blue while Cambridge wear light blue, and each university fields four teams: a men’s and women’s first team and reserve team. As one of the biggest free sporting events in London, the race draws thousands of spectators and is the most-watched live annual sport event in the British television calendar.
No less exciting is the Varsity Match, dating back to 1872 and representing the pinnacle of amateur and student rugby. Teams from the two rival universities hold their showdown at the venerable Twickenham stadium in December. Out of the 134 matches played, Cambridge has a narrow lead over Oxford with 61 victories to Oxford’s 59 (there have been 14 draws), and over 600 players from either side have represented their countries at an international level. This is no regular student rugby match; it draws around half a million viewers on television!
There are a few traditions that, due to their shared origins and long histories, both universities observe quite similarly. Fundamentally, there is a significant difference between Oxford and Cambridge and the rest of the country in terms of how students are taught. Firstly, both universities provide unique one-on-one teaching for all their undergraduates. Secondly, they both adhere to a collegiate system. While Oxford and Cambridge aren’t the only universities in the country divided into colleges, they are the only ones where teaching is centred within the colleges, and each one has its own academic staff. You can either make an open application to Oxford or Cambridge, or you can specify which college you would like to go to.
Beyond the academic similarities, both universities feature a ceremony known as Matriculation. This is where freshers are formally admitted to the university whilst wearing formal academic dress known as sub-fusc. At Oxford, you’ll also have to wear this during your exams. Each university also holds formal dinners, consisting of a three course meal with a strict dress code, for their students within the beautiful dining halls of their college. And once it’s time to graduate, you may find you can’t understand parts of the ceremony – that’s because it is in Latin!
When it comes to obscure traditions, Oxford definitely trumps Cambridge. The most obvious of these will affect every student on a daily basis. In Oxford, all of the lectures and exams are scheduled to start five minutes past the hour. The reason for this dates back to the industrial revolution. Before railways made standardised time a necessity, the UK’s various towns actually functioned on their own time, and Oxford’s was five minutes and two seconds behind Greenwich Mean Time. Oxford University has, in a sense, preserved this alternative time zone to this day. The Tom Tower bell at Christ Church also echoes this by ringing 101 times at 9.05pm every night. It rings again at 8 in the morning. This dates back to the colleges founding in the 16th century, with each toll of the bell representing one of the original 101 students, and it was meant to alert them to the college’s curfew and encourage them to hurry back to the college before the gates were closed for the night.
As well as their rivalry with Cambridge, there are also plenty of traditional grudges between colleges within Oxford itself, the most famous of which is between Lincoln and Brasenose. It is said that hundreds of years ago there were riots between the local people and members of the university, and the townspeople were chasing a number of Oxford students across the city. It is said that Lincoln College opened its doors and let the Lincoln students in, but rather callously shut out the Brasenose student, allowing him to be killed by the angry mob. Ever since, just once a year each Ascension Day (May 25th), a door connecting the two colleges is unlocked and opened for a few hours. Lincoln then serves free drinks to Brasenose students as an apology for past wrong doing.
A more recent tradition at Merton College dates back to 1971, when students decided to celebrate the end of a three-year experiment where the UK remained on British Summer Time (GMT +1) all year round. To mark the occasion, to this day, students don their sub-fusc and parade backwards around the Fellow’s Quad at 2am with a glass of port each. Which makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Not to be outdone by the other colleges, Corpus Christi holds an annual Tortoise Fair, which is thought to have started in the 1920s. The highlight of this fair is the Tortoise Race, in which the shelled reptiles from various Oxford colleges engage in a thrilling race to the edge of a ring of lettuce. Each year, one lucky student is elected to look after Corpus’s prized tortoises, so if you’re an animal enthusiast you may wish to consider standing!
Beyond the individual colleges, May Morning, on the 1st of the month, is a five century old tradition which is still celebrated enthusiastically in Oxford. Students and townspeople alike gather to hear the choir of Magdalen College sing the Eucharist from the top of the college bell tower. There is music and traditional English Morris dancing and pubs stay open all night and cafes open early to provide breakfast for the revellers. Many of the students will have attended a college ball the night before and are dressed in white tie. It’s a real Oxford experience and is not to be missed!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the quirks and traditions of Oxford and Cambridge, but these are just some of the things that add up to make studying in these venerable institutions such a special experience. Of course, the best thing about studying in one of the UK’s finest universities is the first class teaching you will receive.
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