Friday, 2 March 2012

A Trip To Trinity

Off to Trinity College, Cambridge, today and to the Great Court in particular. The Great Court either is, or isn't, the scene of the run by Harold Abrahams in the film "Chariots Of Fire". But more of that conundrum later. First of all lets have a look at the College's back gate, the famous Backs of the colleges where the fine buildings, lawns and gardens back on to the river. This was once known as the colleges' "backsides", but for some reason they changed the name!

At this time of year there's a fine display of early spring flowers, lighting up the scene before the trees start bursting into leaf. And the runners come out of hibernation too - but more of them later.

But if you want to see the Great Court you can't walk straight through the college but have to walk around to the main gate, so lets do just that.

There. not too far was it? And once through the gate you're immediately in the Great Court and what a magnificent space it appears as you enter from the crowded streets of the old part of town. 

Now, "Chariots Of Fire" and the Great Court Run. The point of the run is to complete the entire circuit of the Court in the 43 or so seconds it takes the college clock to strike twelve, actually 24 chimes for some reason. It was first achieved in 1927 by Lord Burghley, otherwise known as David Cecil. He went on to become an Olympic champion and a Conservative MP, distinctions which he shares with the other person to complete the run Sebastian (Lord) Coe who ran the race for charity in 1988. Coe's time is disputed by some and, of course, there is no video evidence of the earlier time.

In fact quibbling about the record is almost as much a sport as the run itself!

It has been achieved more recently than Coe's effort but the course has been shortened. Does that count? Coe only achieved the feat if you take into account that the sound of the last chime had not completely faded away. Will you allow that? The time taken for the chimes to sound varies depending on when the clock was last wound as well as the meteorological conditions of the day. So what time do you actually have to do the run? You might as well use the sundial!

Lord Burghley, who set the original record, would not allow his name to be used in the film "Chariots Of Fire" because of historical inaccuracies. There certainly were a few:
  •  Aubrey Montague was depicted as a student at Cambridge; he went to Oxford.
  • Lord Andrew Lindsay's character based on Burghley who did go to Cambridge but not at the same time as Harold Abrahams.
  • Harold Abrahams achieves the Great Court Run in the film, but not in reality.
  • Montague is said to be alive at the time of Abrahams' death; he'd been dead for 30 years.
And there were many other discrepancies too. Just to confuse the issue still further the Great Court run in the film was actually filmed, not at Trinity at all, but at Eton. 

But, unlike Coe and Burghley, we've got time to look at some of the buildings as we amble around the Court. The front of the Great Gate has already been seen (third picture of this post) and its rather poor statue of Henry VIII has been shown along with an amusing anecdote in an earlier post. The theme of crudely carved statues is continued on the Court side of the gatehouse with representations of James I and his Queen and son. The architectural writer Nickolaus Pevsner is understandably horrified, "One would have thought the King's mason might have tried to do better for a Trinity College commission".

King Edward's Tower (above) was built in 1428-32 but stood some 70 feet further south. It was re-erected on its present site in 1600 by Dr Thomas Nevile, Master of Trinity and favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, as part of his vision of the Great Court.

Nevile was responsible for the building of the Hall, which he financed out of his own pocket.

There's also a third gatehouse, the Queen's Gate which has a statue of Elizabeth I.

The feature which catches the eye of most visitors however must be the fountain, seen here with the Chapel behind it. The Chapel is a fine building though on a much smaller scale than King's Chapel, of course. It holds a fine collection of marble statues of some of the great men who have studied at Trinity including Roubiliac's Sir Isaac Newton....

....Francis Bacon....

....and Tennyson. 

As I was leaving I came across the following entertaining scene... of the college porters was trying to explain to a group of foreign tourists that "according to rules you're in too big a group. If you go out and re-enter as two smaller groups that will be within the regulations!" He was clearly not making himself understood and they seemed to think he was part of the show and stood taking his picture.

Take care.


  1. Another informative and amusing post John. I have been in here but I didn't really have chance to look around too closely as we were on our way to something (can't remember what now- oh dear - might be getting to the old girl stage!)

  2. You are a good writer :)
    And I love the picture with all the purple flowers :)
    Spring is in the air!
    Enjoy your weekend!

  3. Great post and so much to comment about. I remember watching Sebastian Coe run and was always rooting for him to win for whatever reason I now do not recall. The Henry VIII and the wooden leg story was funny and here in the States the prank would be going on yearly no doubt with a new and different something-or-other in his hand at the end of each school year. But the last part with the college porter was the best.

  4. The fictional stories are fun and harmless, until in the retelling they eventually become true. Great post, John. What a distinguished bunch of alumni! Jim

  5. A field of crocus, how beautiful to see. So grand, the clock too. You certainly step back in time to experience buildings from the 1400’s, just amazing. Fun photo for the finale’.

  6. Your tales and your photos are always so interesting, John. I loved Chariots of Fire and don't much care about inaccuracies . . . it was a movie, not an affidavit. Sometime I have to visit Cambridge . . .

  7. This must count as an excellent introduction to Cambridge. If I ever get there I know where to start.

    PS The bridge was the same

  8. Trinity certainly had some illustrious students. I've never really explored the Cambridge colleges although I spent a day looking at several of the colleges in Oxford a couple of years ago. I must try doing the same in Cambridge, in fact I could easily spend several days exploring the area
    around Cambridge too after reading about all the lovely villages and countryside on your blog!

  9. Thanks for all your comments. I was always curious as to why Seb Coe had such difficulty in beating the time, when modern athletes are so obviously faster than those of earlier times. Yesterday I found out: the students always started at one of the corners of the court so only had to negotiate 3 sharp corners. When Coe and Cram did the race it was started midway along one of the sides so they had to do 4 corners, which obviously slowed them down. So now we know!


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).