May Week, Balls and Bumps

For those outside Cambridge, the ‘May Bumps’, ‘May Ball’ and ‘May Week’ terminology used in my last post might seem a little confusing. Essentially, the persistent application of the term ‘May’ to events held in June is an issue of tradition.

When these events were first established in the late 19th Century, they were held in the weeks before examinations were held. The chaos of May Week and Bumps eventually led the University to push events back until after exams had finished. The ‘May’ prefix, however, has remained and we are now in the middle of  what is called ‘May Week’. Following the University’s decision to push it back, May Week now takes place in the week after all undergraduate examinations have finished, when Full Term (the academic year for undergraduates) has ended but before students head home for the long Summer vacation. Basically, the last two weeks have marked an exciting change in the horribly tense and stress-ridden atmosphere of Cambridge in Easter term.

The May Bumps mark the beginning of the May Week period, and were held from Wednesday to Saturday last week (10th – 13th June). Although technically they are held in term time, most students will have finished their exams by this time. If not, they’ll be sitting the very last one early in the week.

In a nutshell, Bumps are an annual set of intercollegiate rowing races held on the River Cam. Two sets are held a year, both over four days: the Lent Bumps in February/March time and the May Bumps at the beginning of June. Bumps are unique to Cambridge and Oxford, created because neither the River Cam nor Cherwell are wide enough to conduct side-by-side races. The Cambridge University Combined Boat Club (CUBC, which sort of regulates the University use of the River) describes the purpose of a Bumps race in the following terms:

At the start of the bumping races, crews line up along the river with one and a half boat lengths of clear water between them. On the start signal (the firing of a cannon) they chase each other up the river. When a bump occurs (when one crew is hit by it’s chasing crew), they pull over to allow the other crews to continue racing. The next day, all crews involved in a bump swap places and the race is run again. After the four days of racing, the aim of the top crews is to be at the “head of the river,” i.e. they lead the first division. Lower crews cannot expect to achieve this, but can win their “blades” by bumping up every day.

It must be said that they a bit hard to understand at first, particularly if you are a spectator. As someone who has spent time rowing for my College, I understand a little more about how Bumps work but am still pretty confused by it. But, as I didn’t row in Bumps this year, that’s fine. I watched from the river bank with a drink in my hand and a pub nearby. Alec and I drove over to The Plough on Saturday afternoon, to watch the last day of races. Naturally it was the most popular day for spectators, including Mr Flat Cap…

The Bumps seem to have a unique power to draw students/alumni and townies (Cambridge’s non-student permanent residents) together when, for the rest of the year, the two groups seem to go to pains to distance themselves from one another. Although I spent the afternoon huddled under an umbrella in my warm college Boat Club fleece, it was really pleasant to see different groups of all different ages drawn together to cheer on their college of choice or affiliation. As I’m a member of Homerton College, and Alec’s grandmother is too, we cheered on the HCBC crews. We stayed to see two of Homerton’s three boats gain blades and come in at third place in the Pegasus Cup. It was completely worth standing under an umbrella for, even if my expression doesn’t seem to show it….

(As someone will ask, my Birdcage Umbrella is available from Fulton for £19. They are truly excellent: my previous one lasted for five years until it was destroyed inadvertently by my father dropping it and then reversing over it in his car.)

As the end of Bumps coincides with the start of May Week – a celebratory week of almost non-stop parties – the previous evening happened to be my College’s May Ball.

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A May Ball is basically an end of year ball, not unlike one you’d see at any other University. However, unlike most Universities, Cambridge uses the historic collegiate system. As a result, all of the Colleges compete to ‘out do’ one another with the scale and opulence of their annual or biennial May Balls. Tickets can range from £50 to £250 each, depending on the college and the ticket type. Generally, each May Ball also has a theme chosen by the student run Ball Committees who dedicate a great deal of their time throughout the academic year to planning the most opulent event they can.

My College May Ball was held on Friday evening. Entering the event at 9pm through a usually innocuous archway, Alec and I found the expansive Homerton College grounds to be covered in marquees and fairy lights, with everything following a Greek ‘Olympus’ theme….

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Most colleges will include food, drink, and entertainment as part of the ticket price and Homerton was no exception. As part of a standard ticket, we could choose from a variety of food stands offering everything from Springbok burgers to seafood to ice cream and a chocolate fountain. Full drinks – including cocktails, wine and ale – were also available.

As a rule of thumb, May Balls are typically all-night parties running from 8 or 9 pm until around 6 am. It’s typical for colleges to host ‘Survivor’s Photos’, in which all of those who have managed to stay standing or awake for the duration, are all photographed together. Being a bit of an oldie with a slight fatigue issue, I unfortunately didn’t make it into my Survivors Photo. It was, however, shot outside my Hall of Residence and Alec later told me that he heard it being taken. I didn’t, as I mostly sleep like the dead.

Nevertheless, May Week is really something special. As part of their celebrations, the larger and wealthier colleges like St John’s and Trinity who can afford to host a May Ball every year (rather than every two, which is the standard for the smaller ones) enter into a ‘face off’ with their fireworks and light shows. During May Week, the Cambridge sky is illuminated with tens of thousands of pounds worth of fireworks sent up by the bigger institutions. On these nights, Cambridge residents and students line the bridges along the College Backs. Punting companies also charge large sums to shuttle boats full of enthusiasts down the River Cam, where they can watch the shows from a prime position.

Typically, these fireworks displays are held between 10 and 11 pm. Occasionally, they are back-to-back and spectators often arrive one to two hours in advance in order to secure the best viewpoint. Last night I ventured out to Clare Bridge, to watch the St John’s show. Although it was far too crowded for me to get the best shots using a tripod (I was distracted by something, so didn’t leave college until 9.30 pm – far too late to get a good spot) I still managed to capture some pretty brilliant views whilst jostled about in the ten deep crowd….




All in all, May Week is something really special and truly a unique Cambridge experience. If you ever have the chance to go to a May Ball or happen to be in Cambridge during May Week, then I urge you to make the most of it. A first experience of May Week is truly a ‘once in a lifetime’ thing and I’m not ashamed to say that I am completely dazzled by it.



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