Myths and Legends

SUZANNE BURLTON debunks some of the most famous Cambridge tall tales in circulation.

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Rather, old chap – Cambridge myths and legends have been lurking around since long before this lot were in town

Welcome, all ye freshers, to the mystical world of Olde Cambridge Towne.

Here be dragons and supervisors, damsels in distress and those having exam crises. Since 1282 students like you have been involved in making the University of Cambridge what it is – a ramshackle collection of colleges and faculties which somehow manage to educate some of the brightest minds in the country and turn out Prime Ministers, famous actors and some vaguely normal people. Over time, there have developed many myths and legends surrounding this institution, for one which is so exclusive is bound to attract speculation and gossip.

First, to touch on the applications process. There are a myriad of unbelievable stories surrounding interviews, and I am sure you’ve heard more than your fair share as you battled your way into this place. Bizarre questions I’ve heard of include being asked how you ‘feel’ about being mixed race in a BioNatSci interview (Maya Mistry, a current second year at Murray Edwards) and being interrogated about your casual role in the collapse of the Lehman Brothers during a Theology interview (Isabella Watney, a first year Theologian at Pembroke). However, I would just like to return to my favourite one: when you walk into your interview at [Insert College of Your Choice], they throw a rugby ball at you. If you catch it, you’re in. If you immediately throw it back, you get a scholarship. This is preposterous nonsense, which is why I love it so.

Everyone knows that Trinity College is rich. Ridiculously rich. Some say it is the fourth richest landowner in the whole of Britain, surpassed only by the Crown, the Church of England and the National Trust. While I cannot say conclusively whether or not this is true, it does earn over £20 million per year from land and properties it owns. But as a Trinity third year argues, “Interest rates are so dreadful that I think it makes sense for them to save a bit less and spend a bit more this year… on cheese after formal.”

A Trinity Third Year thinks Trinity should sack in the real estate and up its cheese budget

Furthermore, few people in Oxbridge have not heard that you can walk from Cambridge to Oxford on land solely owned by Trinity. This legend is widespread but, according to the college’s senior bursar, Jeremy Fairbrother, is not true. As far as we know, no one has yet seriously consulted a map but I suggest that this be done post haste.

Queens’ College’s famed Mathematical Bridge

You may have seen the Mathematical Bridge by Queens’ College. If not, do go and have a wander for it is an intriguing structure. Legend has it that it was built only of wood, without any screws or bolts to hold it together, by none other than Sir Isaac Newton. Some naughty students then disassembled it and were completely unable to put it back together as it once was, which is why it is now bolted in the way it is.

However, rest assured that not even Newton was sufficiently genius to build such a bridge – it was, in fact, erected twenty-two years after his death. It always had pins at the joints, although in the current incarnation they are more visible. Still, it gives third year Queens’ medic, Callum Wood, the opportunity to “correct punt guides as they drift down the river peddling their stories to gullible tourists,” which is what these myths are all about really.

Another bridge, the bridge of Clare College, has a more plausible but ultimately equally untrue myth surrounding it. One of the stone spheres adorning the bridge has a wedge missing from it. The popular explanations are either that the bridge’s builder was not paid properly and so vandalised his own creation in revenge, or that a college fellow removed it to win a bet with another fellow about how many spheres (i.e. complete ones!) there were on the bridge, or that it was deliberately left unfinished so the college could avoid paying a bridge tax. Take your pick.

Clare College Bridge – quirky or a vehicle of tax evasion?

The real answer, however, is that the sphere became loose and a section was removed for access to the central fixing. The wedge was replaced with cement but this soon eroded, the wedge fell out and into the river and was never seen again. The same thing has been done to several spheres on the bridge but the cement repair has remained intact.

There are a great many ghost stories surrounding the colleges, which is unsurprising given the age of the college buildings. In Peterhouse, in the corner of the Senior Combination Room, there is a staircase in which a monk is said to have hanged himself. Emmanuel had phantom footsteps of a student who committed suicide until they knocked down and replaced the offending rooms. Oliver Cromwell’s decapitated head floats around Sidney Sussex. These are to name but a few, for just as Girton has its grey lady and Corpus has Dr Butts, each college has its own favourite hauntings.

In November, The Tab reported that the elusive Cambridge Night Climbers had managed to put Santa hats on the four spires of King’s Chapel

Various items have, apparently, made their way onto bridges and roofs. Twice has a car been dangled under the Bridge of Sighs at John’s, and in 1958 a van was hoisted onto the roof of Senate House. However, my favourite of these stories which, unlike the others, is only possibly true, in the one about a road cone being put on one of the spires on King’s Chapel. The college erected scaffolding to get it down but could not get all the way up to the roof in one day. On the morrow, the college officials came out to discover that students had climbed the tower in the night and put the cone on the other spire. Bugger.

The Austin Seven van perched atop the roof of the Senate House, 1958

Beware, then, of students telling tall tales. If anyone purports to tell you something amazing about Cambridge, take it with a pinch of salt. But not too much salt. The greatest myth of all is that it matters if any of this is true. Some of these stories are outrageous but all are fabulous, so I encourage you to spread them with wild abandon, and maybe even create one of your own. I’ll give a bottle of something to the first person to play a really good prank on our dean.