Cambridge ... where traditions never change


My friend Pen has invited me to High Table to dine with her fellow academics at Downing College in Cambridge. But I'm not getting anywhere near the pre-dinner sherry without a careful inspection of my wardrobe first.

After drinking my way through a law degree at Cambridge University, I'm no stranger to its archaic rules - mounting the horse statue at Jesus College is a no-no, so too is walking on the carefully cultivated lawns that surround each college of the renowned university.

Eating at a college also comes with its own set of procedures, the least of which is wearing a collared shirt, tie and jacket.

But Pen, resplendent in flowing black academic gown, is not impressed by my sartorial efforts.

"It's the colour of poo," she says, fingering the polyester blend of my 1970s ex-hire suit with obvious distaste. "But I suppose it will do."

The gentle light of a warm English summer's evening filters through stands of pines, alders and plane trees as we walk through Downing College's expansive grounds towards the rather austere facades of its Greek revival buildings.

The college was established in 1800 by Sir George Downing, whose grandpa built the British prime ministerial pad at No.10 Downing Street. At the age of 15 Downing married his 13-year-old cousin, Mary, but romance never blossomed between the teenagers and she left poor George in 1703 to fuss over Queen Anne.

Their unhappy marriage at least benefited Cambridge University, which was bequeathed a new residential college in George's will.


These days, marrying a teenage cousin is probably more frowned upon than my highly flammable wardrobe. But other college traditions, beginning with the paint stripper served in crystal glasses in the Fellows' drawing room, are still cherished.

I've barely had a chance to burn my lips before a waiter hits the dinner gong and ushers us into a dining room filled with paintings of rather grim past college fellows. They've obviously been forewarned on what the chef is dishing up this evening. A heavily tattooed waiter who talks like "Arfur" Daley from Minder serves the bizarre entree: peppered tuna and raspberries filled with chocolate that tastes better than it sounds.

Cambridge produces some of the world's finest brains but they do not excel in the art of small talk, which is as stodgy as the lumpy gravy served with the roast beef.

Sporting rivalry elicits greater passion from the High Table, especially Australia's declining fortunes on the cricket pitch.

A fellow who bears more than a passing resemblance to Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies points out that England's former cricket captain Mike Atherton read history at Downing College.

Hagrid proceeds to inform the table about Atherton's expletive-laden nickname, to the horror of his fellow academics, who are clearly unused to hearing the indelicate language of cricketers in the hallowed halls of one of the world's most famous universities.

Arfur Daley just raises an eyebrow but continues dishing out peas and carrots boiled to the point they can be drunk rather than eaten.

Talk turns to other famous former students such as John Cleese, who apparently loathed his time at the college.

"Every time we invite him to a fund-raiser, he says, 'No, no, I went to Pembroke [another Cambridge college],"' Hagrid says with regret.

"And we've only produced two leaders of a political party," another fellow chips in.

"And one of them was the British National Party."