Between 2am British Summer Time and 2am Greenwich Mean Time last Sunday, Mertonians took part in the traditional Time Ceremony, walking backwards around Fellow’s Quad in full sub fusc, allegedly to “maintain the space-time continuum”.
The ceremony dates back to 1971, when only five undergraduates at Merton College took part. Forty three years later, these same five undergraduates still return to their old College every year on the last Sunday of October, to take part in the now archetypal Mertonian ritual.
The science behind the ceremony has never been truly validated, but the aim of the ceremony is to “create an oasis of calm to protect against the perturbative effects of the change from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time”, according to Merton JCR President Daniel Schwennicke.
The ceremony begins on Sundial Lawn at 01:50am British Summer Time, where the founders (or the “Grand Originals” as some Mertonians know them) give three toasts to the assembly. These toasts are:
“To a good old time!”, “Long live the counter revolution!” and “o tempora, o more!”.
Students then move on through the South Gate to enter the 17th century Fellow’s Quad, where the actual ceremony takes place. The participants in the ceremony walk backwards, linking arms to form chains of people, and spinning at each corner.
Paul Engeham, one of the five founders of the Time Ceremony, described one of the difficulties of participating in the Time Ceremony: “when you have great strings of people, you can’t turn properly, and the furthest person on the line ends up being swung out… three is the perfect number for spinning”.
As is tradition, attendees drink port (or a non-alcoholic, but purple coloured substitute). College has banned glass bottles from the quad due to safety concerns, so participants carry their drinks in plastic bottles.
JCR and MCR volunteers are on hand every year to provide water and help look after any students in need of support.
In an effort to control numbers, the porters locked all entrances to Merton College at 23:00 British Summer Time, and students had to present their Bod cards at the Lodge to gain admittance to the college after this time, and to ensure that only Mertonians attended the ceremony.
Nevertheless, as there is every year, there were several attempts to break in. Two undergraduates scaled a wall near North Lodge Gate, and were found and turned away by Merton College porters.
However, one fourth year undergraduate, who wished to remain anonymous, told Cherwell, “I managed to get into the college, but I think a porter saw me. I crouched down and hid in a bush while he walked past. He knew I was there – it was like something out of a horror film. But then I got into the Time Ceremony itself, and it was the most surreal, fantastic thing ever”.
The ceremony used to be preceded by the original founders climbing up the walls in Fellow’s Quad to unscrew the lamps, so that the space-time continuum could be preserved in darkness. The undergraduates also used to hold bottles containing candles to light their way.
The Time Ceremony has persisted for several decades now, having been embraced by College (whereas originally it was held in secret), but in the late 1970s it seemed that it would never become a fixed Merton tradition. Phillip Brown, a friend of the founders, and a regular participator in the Time Ceremony, died of throat cancer.
Without him, his friends were reluctant to continue the ceremony. However, Paul Engeham, one of the founders, said that they decided to re-start in the early 1980s, rooting the Time Ceremony as a Merton tradition in tribute to Phillip Brown.
Founder Garth Fowden said in reflection of the ceremony, “anyway, the bell tolled (did it?), the mist swirled (inevitably), much port was imbibed (with mathematical certainty), and the lonely shadowy figures reversed round the hallowed quad. They must surely now be revolving in their graves or their bath chairs at the thought of what it has become.”
Since its renewal in the 1980s, the ceremony has grown in popularity, and is now as popular with current undergraduates as it was with those few who took part decades ago. First year Merton undergraduate Caleb Rich described the ritual as “weird and wonderful”.
Merton College sports representative and second year undergraduate historian Freddie Money quipped that Time Ceremony is “definitely taking the concept of spinning sessions to a new level”.
In an email from the Merton JCR President, Daniel Schwennicke, sent to the undergraduate student body of the college, Time Ceremony was described as, “one of the great events in the Merton calendar, and one of the most surreal and incomparable evenings that you [Merton students] will experience in your time at Oxford”.