Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Restaurant Review: Formal Hall, Christ's College Cambridge

Christ's College Cambridge
This is a bit of an unfair review since the vast majority of my readers will not be able to go to this particular restaurant – it’s so exclusive it doesn’t take bookings from the general public. No, it’s not the Chiltern Firehouse – in fact it’s technically not a restaurant at all, but the formal dining hall at my Cambridge college.
 
I had probably the best three years of my life at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where I studied modern and medieval languages and spent most of my free time at bops (basically discos – the one at Queen’s college was particularly good as it played cheesy music whereas the Ents (entertainment) manager at Christ’s at that time had a preference for drum and base), in the Late Night Bar (the second of two bars in my college – for reasons I won’t go into here, one closed at 8.30 and the other opened at 9), in my room reading and writing essays, or in the offices of the student newspaper which we launched as a rival to the long-standing Varsity – I’m pleased to say The Cambridge Student (TCS) has won awards and is still going strong today.

The Cambridge Student newspaper

 
As a graduate and lifetime member of the college, I’m allowed to go back to formal hall a couple of times a year, and dine at High Table with the Fellows. Formal hall was a fairly raucous affair when I was an undergraduate as you were permitted to take a bottle of wine (each – though that was later changed to one between two). The college had a normal self-service canteen, but also the formal dining hall. Seated below  portraits of the college’s founder and other dignitaries, we were treated – for a measly sum – to pretty much the same food we’d have got in the self-service canteen, but three courses and coffee and with waiter service. And, as I said, the wine.
 
If ‘boatraces’ and ‘pennying’ mean nothing to you then you’ve obviously never had dinner in a Cambridge college. But we’re all grown up now and wouldn’t dream of such a thing ;-)  As my boyfriend had never been to Cambridge, I thought it was about time I took him back to the city where I spent such important years of my life – the student rag turned into a job on a national daily newspaper and some of my closest friends today are from Christ's – and show him around.
 
He often jokes about me having attended Hogwarts and asks if I chose Christ’s or the Sorting Hat chose it for me, so I couldn’t wait to find out what he thought of the college and its traditions. Certain things which I took for granted at the time strike me as highly unusual now – after all how many of my friends at other universities would toast the Queen after dinner?
 
I'm Batman! My college gown
Gowns are worn in formal hall – the black robes you see students at other universities only wearing on graduation. We had to wear ours quite a lot, formal hall being one place where they were mandatory. As a college member I was expected to wear my gown when going back to dine – luckily I had thought of this a little while ago and dug my gown out of the spare wardrobe in my parents house where it had been living.

I popped into the plodge (porter's lodge) as we arrived then went to the Senior Combination Room where the Fellows gather before dinner. We were dining with three Fellows, one of whom had taught two of my friends who were there as well, so it was a nice reunion.

Formal hall was just as I remembered but we had a different perspective looking across at the students - and, it turns out, the Fellows eat different food to the students. We had parsnip and apple soup to start, beef wellington for the main course and a trio of chocolate desserts, and then a cheeseboard as well. Grace was said in Latin at the start, but before we got to the port, the Fellows filed out of the back door of the hall and we followed. I vaguely remembered as a student that the Fellows would leave before we had finished dinner at which point the noise level would increase; what I didn't realise was that they were only in the room next door!

One of Christ's most famous alumni - no not Ali G... Charles Darwin

Port, soft drinks and then coffee was served while we were seated around a large table chatting to the Fellows about everything from the issue of student mental health to which rooms we had lived in college. And of course we did toast the Queen as well. It was a very enjoyable evening and great to be able to show my boyfriend what college life was like. If anyone reading this is thinking of applying to Cambridge, I can't recommend it enough! The traditions do seem a bit strange at times but they are just that - traditions. College life is more about learning, making friends, writing essays and discovering what you enjoy, be it a sports team, the student newspaper or in the case of one friend bellydancing - and whether you go to formal hall only once when your parents are visiting, or every week (they did a good Sunday roast!) it's up to you. And trust me, when you visit your old college 15+ years later, you'll be amazed at the things you took for granted and grateful you had the chance.

There's nothing I've written here that isn't already in the public domain but I didn't take photos inside formal hall to protect students' privacy.

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