Emily Lawson-Todd

While students at Nottingham, Leeds and Manchester may indulge in a seven-day bender during Freshers’, Cambridge offers a unique blend of traditions, including matriculation, formals and college orientation. Not to say that one is inherently superior to the other – I can’t help but wonder how I would have enjoyed a week-long stay at Rock City.

“The promise of May Week arguably makes up for a truncated week of fun”

When you ask most Cambridge students about Freshers’ Week, it typically doesn’t stand out as the pinnacle of their Cambridge journey. I vividly recall moving in on a Sunday and receiving an essay due on the Wednesday. Different move-in dates mean some barely get a week, and while the experiences differ from college to college, the promise of May Week arguably makes up for a truncated week of fun.

Has Cambridge always struggled to provide its students with opportunities for fun and socialisation? The prospect of navigating Cambridge life alone is bewildering. When Hannah Aird, who matriculated at Selwyn College in 1996, searched desperately for fellow AMES students studying Chinese at Selwyn but found none, she faced the additional challenge of being unable to gravitate towards the ‘natural group’ of people studying her subject.

Emily Lawson-Todd

Today, Cambridge also organises anti-racist and anti-homophobia workshops, but such initiatives were nonexistent in the past in this form. The closest approximation was the Cambridge University Student Union’s ‘little blue book,’ which students found invaluable for sex education. The admin also prevailed in other forms. Perhaps one of the initial hurdles that university presents is the delicate juggling act of managing administrative tasks, socialising, and settling into your new environment.

Hannah fondly remembers the Revs’ predecessor, ‘Cindies’, which made it out of the 90s – its host club Ballare closed as recently as 2020. She also notes the Van of Life equivalent: “a kebab place on St Edward’s Passage”. Claire Mullany, an MMLer who studied French and German at Newnham from 1992 to 1996, pointed out Junction also has a longstanding reputation as a gig venue, one of the Cambridge spots which better resembles the nightlife of larger university cities.

Even back then, porters didn’t get much rest, as corridor parties known as “squashes” organised by college parents were the norm. Though a relatively recent invention when compared to the ancient university, it’s comforting to know that college parents have been welcoming freshers for at least a generation.

Emily Lawson-Todd

On the other hand, Claire recalls feeling there was no other choice but to venture outside of college. While she adored Newnham and her time there, she does admit that the college bar was quite inadequate and not favoured by members of other colleges either. Aside from an “ill-fated pub crawl”, Claire has “fond memories” of the Granta and the Anchor rather than of her college bar.

Cambridge didn’t, and still does not, shy away from puncturing big egos early on, starting with a talk from the Senior Tutor reminding students that, despite previously being “big intellectual fish in small ponds”, they were no longer to be considered exceptional in Cambridge. I can think of a few who could benefit from such a reality check.

However, pretentious egos aren’t the sum total of Cambridge’s population. In the 21st century, it’s impossible to discuss Cambridge without happening upon the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’. While the phrase might not have been as widespread back then, Hannah’s recollection of fearing exposure as a “massive intellectual fraud” highlights that such sentiments are far from new or unique. Claire was not immune either; on her first night, her college mum led her to believe that she wouldn’t need to buy a gown as there would be surplus available. Before she could even feel embarrassed at the thought of forgetting one, her DoS sharply corrected her, which instantly intensified her sense of not fitting in – a feeling many of us can relate to during Freshers’ Week at Cambridge.

“Fearing exposure as a “massive intellectual fraud” highlights that such sentiments are far from new or unique”

The most valuable piece of advice I received before Freshers’ Week was that everything at Cambridge is intense. This encompasses not just the academic workload but also friendships, drama and social interactions. Fortunately, both Hannah and I found our friend groups during Freshers’ Week. Hannah’s experience serves as living proof that, contrary to popular opinion, these university friendships can endure a lifetime; among the five on her staircase, one became her husband, another served as their best man, and the third was their bridesmaid. I can’t say, however, that this has manifested into the modern day for me yet: the most romantic thing I’ve been exposed to is a college marriage.

Yet equally, the ideal of finding your people straight away doesn’t always work out; Claire recalls feeling that she only made true friends having fully involved herself in GrimSoc, The Northern Society at the time. At times, it seems like as soon as the clock hits midnight on that Monday morning following the final day of Freshers’ Week, everyone else has already formed their cliques, finished unpacking, is unscathed by hangovers, and prepared to dive into their studies. Chances are, that’s not always the case.

Emily Lawson-Todd

Upon being asked about Varsity, Claire described it as “our absolute Bible”. She reminisced about how her year became especially memorable when she appeared in Varsity’s classified messages feature on Valentine’s Day.


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When a new fresher is led to believe they’ve stumbled upon something unique that turns out to be a years-old tradition, it serves as a reminder that more remains the same than changes. The sweaty clubs which freshers pack into may have rebranded, but like the unchanging college buildings, the whirlwind of feelings and highly individual yet collective process of adjustment seem to be timeless.

It’s remarkable to think that, somehow, across the country and across generations, a week of being silly freshers unites us all in one way or another.