Cambridge May Week

Zhong Zhu Xuan, University of Cambridge, International Marketing Team

Jesus College’s transformation for their annual May ball.

Jesus College’s transformation for their annual May ball.

Disclaimer: this article contains observations from my own experiences and may not be representative of everyone’s.

Despite the name, May week occurs in June and refers to the week immediately after all exams end, where funs events such as garden parties and May balls occur.

Historically, this used to take place a week before exams began — in May, but it has since been shifted to after exams and the name just stuck.

The week is usually marked off by the cardboard box boat race, which first took place in 2010. Anyone can build a boat out of cardboard and participate, while audiences spectate the race from the banks of River Cam. Some teams really go to great efforts to make their boat! (e.g. Queens’ engineers built a boat that can fit more than 10 people, though not quite sure how fast it went…)

Cambridge cardboard boat race: participants in action

Cambridge cardboard boat race: participants in action

May week is dotted with garden parties in the day and June events/May balls in the evening. When not going for either, one can choose to relish the freedom one now has as exams are over, basking in the sunlight, exploring the hidden beauties of Cambridge, taking a day trip to nearby towns such as Ely, punting along River Cam, picnicking atop Castle Mound etc — term time in Cambridge may be somewhat hellish, but beyond term, when one finally has time to stop and smell the flowers, one discovers the immense charm of this old town.

Garden parties are held by many colleges and university societies and the line up differs from one another. Hence, some are more expensive and (presumably) offer more variety. For example, the one at my college (Peterhouse!) had 3 bouncy castles set up, ice cream from Aromi (an Italian eatery in Cambridge, I would highly recommend the pizzas and gelato) among other foods, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and face painting. While food and drinks are pretty standard, the quality and variety may differ (some parties may opt for BBQ etc), and the other activities also vary (not all have bouncy castles, for example).

A garden party at Sidney Sussex college

A garden party at Sidney Sussex college

June events are smaller versions of May balls. While both lasts throughout the night (typically 9pm to 5am), June events are cheaper and hence less extravagant, but usually just as fun (especially with the reduced burden on the wallet).

And May balls. These can be literally considered balls, but more modern, and are held by many colleges. Dress code is usually black tie with the exception of Magdalene and Peterhouse, which are white tie and white tie preferred respectively. On such nights, the college transforms into (almost) a magical land, lit up with colourful lights among other decorations. May balls offer almost everything you can ask for in a party: food, desserts, drinks (again, alcoholic and non-alcoholic), performances, fireworks, carnival rides (dodgems/bumper cars, carousel, ferris wheel etc), photo booths, silent disco, casinos, face painting etc. The combination can differ depending on which one you go for, but they are all guaranteed to give you a good time, especially if you go with your friends!

Don’t forget to gather for the survivors’ photo, which marks the end of the May ball ft. Queens’ May Ball 2019 survivors’ photo

Don’t forget to gather for the survivors’ photo, which marks the end of the May ball ft. Queens’ May Ball 2019 survivors’ photo

However, not everyone may be game for splurging £100 or above on a May ball ticket, so many choose to work for them instead to earn a little, while still enjoying the general atmosphere at the ball. Some colleges also offer an option for you work half of the ball and enjoy the other half of the ball as payment.

However, the sheer extravagance of the event also may also make some uncomfortable, especially given the homelessness situation in Cambridge, on which money can be more productively used. My personal opinion is that this should not stop you from being able to enjoy but I urge you to at least bear this in mind when you decide to buy a ticket, and if you really do care, try to contribute within your means — there are many volunteer groups in Cambridge that help the homeless that you can join!

There is much more to May Week than what I have mentioned, but these are the main things you will hear about. It does not mean that you must attend them! I know many people who choose to skip all these for a short getaway with their friends (which can cost around the same as the price of a May ball ticket). So it really is up to you how you want to spend it!

Undoubtedly, May Week is one of the unique things about studying at the University of Cambridge. The week of crazy merry-making following the period of crazy studying for exams conforms to a characteristic of people at Cambridge: work hard, play harder.

Zhu Xuan ZhongComment