Letters from the dorm: A hint of Potter magic at uni

Letters from the dorm: A hint of Potter magic at uni


Students at Durham dine at long tables in ancient halls.
Students at Durham dine at long tables in ancient halls.
Photo: Isabel Lai

It recently occurred to me that my university experience isn't far off Harry Potter. Cast your mind back to the dining room scenes of the film series. Students at Durham sit in a similar formation at formal halls, commonly known as formals. Yes, we actually dine at long tables in ancient halls.

Formals are the height of British academic tradition. Besides Durham, they are also common at Oxford, Cambridge and St Andrew's. There is usually a high table where members of the senior common room (SCR) - a group of staff and academics - sit. Everyone else, including undergraduates and postgraduates, sit at the low tables.

A three-course meal is always served. And personally, the best part is dressing up and wearing an academic gown to these occasions.

Perhaps this is a British way of celebrating academic excellence. No one really knows why we sit around and eat with our gowns on. We do many things in the name of tradition, including the rules and customs we follow.

Undergraduates and postgraduates normally take their places in front of the low tables first. We only sit down after the SCR enter the dining room and once grace has been said (always in Latin).

Rowdy behaviour and use of phones is strictly forbidden. What's more, we must remain seated throughout the meal. A desperate trip to the toilet may be granted only if you receive a nod from someone on the high table.

These dinners are well worth attending. At my college, St Chad's, formals are held twice a week. My friends and I normally head over for an evening of quality banter and good cheer. At particular times of the year, such as Halloween and Christmas, we even have themed formals when we can dress up accordingly and match the grand festive decorations of our dining hall.

Every time I put on my gown for a formal, I feel a sense of purpose. As we take our seats at the Great Hall, we remember generations of scholars before our time and their intellectual contributions to humanity. Formals give us young people an opportunity to reflect on the past and consider our role in the future.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
A hint of Potter magic at uni


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