In praise of formal hall

The joys of Oxford's numerous halls are worth exploring.

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Formal hall at Keble College, Oxford

Formal dinners are an unusual microcosm of Oxford life. A (generally) subsidised college service of hugely variable quality, good odds of making awkward eye contact with someone you vaguely recognise from that bop, and a great opportunity to drink on a Wednesday.

They easily become just part of college routine – or one of those things you do once and never again. All this, however, changes when you don your gown to step into another college’s hall. Someone else’s mundane evening is a whole new experience, one that you can safely navigate with the knowledge that whatever faux pas you are likely to commit will be around people you’re likely to never see again. Maybe it’s complacently sitting down at Univ after only the first ‘Dominum nostrum. Amen’, or snapping a picture of your first course in front of more eagle-eyed waitstaff.

Whatever may happen, it’s a great chance to experience dining in an unfamiliar location, experience its rich history, and discover a new bar. If you’re lucky, the food might even be good! The important thing is to just unwind and have fun, and preferably to check the menu beforehand.

To those yet unexposed to sitting in front of a foreign High Table, there are many ways to take your first steps. The easiest, of course, is to go with a friend: our time here is always busy and having an hour and a half to catch up with someone often ends up being the main attraction instead.

Alternatively there are many different, more one-off events dotted throughout term: Oxford RAG organises formal hall surfing to raise money for different charities, while exchange dinners with specific colleges are mainstays of MCRs. For the completionists among us, online groups exist for facilitate more informal exchanges, offers of hosting, or even college tours. It’s not just clubs and societies, but good conversations over dinner that are great ways to make new friends.

Nonetheless it must be acknowledged that constantly attending different formal halls isn’t everyone’s idea of having fun. Sometimes there is a good reason you haven’t been to said college: it is a long trek from St. Hilda’s to Wolfson. Dinners may run up to two, maybe two and a half, hours, particularly if you’re attending special ones like guest nights. And time isn’t the only luxury we can’t afford: some are flat-out expensive, particularly for guests. University life is far from cheap at the best of time, and so the idea of paying to participate in yet another stifling Oxford tradition may seem absurd.

Still, at other moments it can be a welcome escape, even a well-deserved treat at the end of the week. We all work hard, we’re allowed to take a break to appreciate where we are. Maybe trying out numerous formal dinners is just a reminder of how remarkably distinct the experience of living and working at different colleges can be. At times, it’s easy to forget the rich histories and architecture all brimming under the umbrella of a single university, and joined by its many traditions. It’s too big an ask to pack the little quirks and details of dining at all 44 colleges and halls into a single article: you’ll have to go experience it yourself.

Now for someone to get me into All Souls!

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