Rosie Best

A generously sized starter of pretentiousness, followed by a steaming plate of rowdiness and, finally, a dessert of disappointment and regret. Any coffee with that? Formals have become synonymous with Cambridge life but they are not all they seem – behind the classic Harry Potter image of beautiful ceilings, candles lining the tables and gourmet food is the reality of bizarre traditions and customs which should, more accurately, be likened to the mad hatter’s tea party.

From the seating arrangements to the crockery; formal is an undeniably pretentious experience. The Latin blessing – did he just say nostril? – is surely understood by less than 10% of the student population and does anyone actually know which side the wine glasses are on, or which bread roll is theirs? The fact that students must stand upon the late entrance and early exit of high table is nonsensical and the serving of the Master and Fellows at least 15 minutes before everyone else is an unnecessary display of an outdated college hierarchy although, admittedly, I make full use of this time in trying to remember which spoon I am supposed to use first.

Arguably the biggest downfall of formal is the food. At our matriculation formal last year the main course was guinea fowl and, call me uncultured, but I didn’t even know what guinea fowl was, never mind whether or not I was going to like it. Not wanting to finish your meal at formal leads to awkward glances from peers or even to waiting staff leaving your plate in front of you, assuming that you simply haven’t finished your stuffed crow. Dietary requirements also force one to endure a painfully uninventive formal menu; it must be hard to watch your friends devour a plate of ice cream and chocolate tart while you are presented with a bowl of fruit salad – apparently the only dairy-free dessert available in Cambridge.

Pennying has also become a dangerous, cut-throat sport designed to get friends as drunk as possible, as quickly as possible. The actual use of pennies is unhygienic; while it is true that, by the time the penny is finished with, the layers of dirt accumulated on the penny’s surface are removed and dissolved into your wine. Next time you’re downing your glass of wine, egged on by the chanting of friends, remember that a percentage of that could be… well, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Lana Crowe

Formal Hall: the University of Cambridge’s answer to Nandos. When looking for somewhere to chill with the squad, it is the first place you turn to. It has a cult status in Cambridge life as the home of classic banter. Yet rather than being provided with Portuguese mood music and chicken motifs, we get crests, gowns and Latin graces. Formals are the one aspect of the romanticised Cambridge image that is not crushed by reality, but lives up to expectation. If this is as close as it gets to Nandos… we are not in Kansas anymore.

The antiquated beauty of most college halls is breath-taking. It would be hard for even the most anti-establishment among us not to admire the beautiful panelled walls, the meticulously detailed ceiling, the portraits of masters gone by. To look down a long table of be-gowned scholars glowing in warm candlelight is to be transported back in time.

Attending formal hall is a nice excuse for a little occasion: it gives you the opportunity to take a break from working, get dressed up and relax with you friends. It can be surprisingly informal for something called a ‘formal’; by the end of the meal, voices are louder, manners are forgotten and gowns are undoubtedly a little jaunty (as, of course, nothing screams mad 1 with the ladz like a jaunty gown).

Yes, the prospect of a formal can be intimidating at first: however, it’s a testimony to how I’ve adapted and settled in to Cambridge that I’m now totally comfortable with it. It’s a good opportunity to talk to new people: nothing cements a budding friendship like a bit of cheeky pennying. You are provided with a three-course meal for a delectable price: a restaurant could charge double, or even triple, for food of the same quality.

In a lot of ways, going to formal hall epitomises the experience of the modern Cambridge student. It’s steeped in tradition, full of grandeur, intimidatingly decadent; yet we roll up donning Primark suits and carrying the finest Sainsbury’s vintage that can be acquired for £4.50