Port And Pints: A Glimpse Into Oxford University’s Student Life

Jamey Heron-Waterhouse

I’m sure we all have an assumption of how the students at Oxford University live, right? Well, as a visitor there, I was both pleasantly surprised and predictably humoured by the antiquated yet entertaining formalities, as well as some of the informalities, that occur inside the ivy-covered walls of England’s oldest university

Whilst there, I attended their adequately named formal hall, happening daily, and great hall happening bi-weekly, both of which students pay extra for. Formal hall is the same food as the normal dinner expected in catered living but served on nice plates and everyone dresses up in their ‘sub fusc’, a robe of sorts that is worn over nice clothing. Great hall, however, is a whole new menu, and much fancier than the formal.

Since we had celebrated my boyfriend’s birthday that week, his friends brought out a bottle of champagne before dinner (the most I’ve ever gotten a friend was an £8 bottle of Smirnoff, but maybe that’s just me), which then caused perhaps the best sentence I will ever hear in my life; “you got champagne on my Gucci loafers!” which was of course followed by laughter and a self-depreciative “I can’t believe I just said that”.

Walking into great hall, I was surrounded by canvases of alumni from various centuries in which I can only assume is oil paint because its oxford, they don’t mess about when it comes to portraiture! Sitting down I saw three glasses in front of me: a wine glass, a water glass, and a mini wine glass that I later found out was a port glass, yes port if you can believe it, all illuminated by candlelight. Luckily, I had been warned about what happened next as a gavel was tapped and everyone stood up whilst the tutors from the college walked in in full robes, sitting at a large table at the front of the room. This was followed by a student who read Latin from a paddle (a translation of which I couldn’t give even if I tried), then the gavel was tapped again, and we sat. Whilst stifling a laugh, not out of disrespect, but out of shock for the sheer formality of it all, I remembered that I was told these students are given the incentive of a free bottle of wine if they read the Latin twice, making it all seem slightly less alien to me since, I too would read Latin, albeit terribly, for a free bottle, wouldn’t we all? Though I would probably end up summoning some sort of demon by accident so best leave it to those who understand it.

I’m not quite sure whether they just said that to make themselves seem way less posh

Slightly panicking about which knife or fork to use, I began to eat the four-course meal that was displayed before me on fancy looking plates. It goes without saying that the food was great, the fourth course consisting of a cheese platter which I was incredibly excited about and, of course, the port. Mustering up my best Mr Birling impression (don’t ever let anyone tell you GCSE English won’t come in handy) I was handed the port, but not before being told by a fellow teenager that port must be passed to the left so I can’t ask someone else to pour it for me, which I tried out of fear of spilling it everywhere and being beheaded or some other medieval punishment. Now, I was promised by the other students that port was not common at great hall and that I was just lucky to experience it that day, though I’m not quite sure whether they just said that to make themselves seem way less posh. Either way, I feel as though I am much more cultured for it. Ah the self-importance of the upper class!

After, we left to go to their student bar, and let’s just say the formal traditions stopped there and absolute chaos ensued. It was the night for the college rugby team’s weekly drinking game, the rules of which I am both unaware of and unable to disclose as I will be punished for “coaching” next time I participate (though I don’t see that happening in the future out of instinctive self-preservation). Having absolutely no idea what any of the rules were, I watched by boyfriend down two pints on the spot just for being late and then pour an entire pint all over himself, only partially aiming for his mouth, for a reason I couldn’t even begin to guess.

If you’re confused, imagine how confused I was

Then it was apparently my turn. The game, which I was unaware we were playing, consisted of saying “aye” and a couple of other things that I didn’t understand in a correct pattern or the correct number of times (again, still no clue). My boyfriend before me had said “aye aye aye” which was apparently correct (what???) and that was literally all the instruction I was given. Panicking I said “just… aye?” the response to which was laughter and being told I had to drink. If you’re confused, imagine how confused I was.

So, whilst the formal traditions seem odd to those of us who aren’t used to them, and it may not be the most common university experience, I think some of England’s best and brightest deserve a little glamour and debauchery, just as long as our future politicians are hitting the books more often than the bar!

Jamey Heron-Waterhouse

Featured image courtesy of Olibac via Flickr Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article images courtesy of @oxford_uni via Instagram.com. No changes were made to these images.

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