Freshers’ guide to Formal Hall at Churchill

Key summary:

  • Dress code is smart: jackets and ties, smart evening dresses/skirts/formal trousers/jumpsuits. But students do not need to wear black, academic gowns. Browse the pictures in the carousel on this page, for an idea of what people tend to wear.*
  • Stand during grace at the start and end of each meal; remain seated between the graces.
  • Cutlery: start on the outside and work your way in.
  • Drink: maximum of half a bottle of wine per person is permitted.
  • Be respectful to waiting staff at all times; no calling, shouting, or making/receiving phone calls, and no throwing things.

“Formal Hall in Cambridge is unusual, fun and a privilege. Come and enjoy it!”

In more detail:

People new to Churchill and Cambridge may have little experience of formal dining in an environment like Hall, so here are some ground rules to help you understand what to do.

The dress-code for formal dining is smart: so, jackets and ties, or smart evening dresses and skirts. If you wear a jacket and tie, you should keep your jackets on.

Diners are called into formal dinner, just before it is due to start, by a gong being sounded. Usually, this is just before 7.30 pm in the bar/buttery area downstairs from Hall. (This is where most people gather before going into Hall.)

People then assemble in Hall, leaving no gaps between diners. Occasionally there will be a seating-plan – usually posted just outside Hall on screens or boards – but this is only for special events. Groups who have booked places together in advance are likely to have their seating areas identified by a sign on the table.

Dinner begins with a Latin prayer known as grace. Grace is often very short. You should remain standing at your place when you enter Hall until the opening grace has been said, at which point everyone sits down together. You should remain seated (there is no moving around during dinner) until closing grace is said. This marks the formal end of dinner, and is preceded by a gong, at which sound everyone stands. Once closing grace has been said and the High Table (Fellows’) party has left, everyone can sit down again if they wish, or leave Hall. It is at this point that any announcements or toasts can be made or raised.

If you are not drinking alcohol and it is being served by the staff, turn your wine glasses (just to the right, in front of you) over. Staff serving alcohol are usually able to offer a non-alcoholic alternative. There should be water and there is also often cordial (undiluted!) on the table. If you are dining on an occasion when diners bring their own wine with them (the usual arrangement other than on special occasions), then the limit is half a bottle of wine, or a pint of beer, lager or cider per person.

There are usually three courses, so there will be quite a lot of cutlery! The rule of thumb is: start on the outside and work your way in. If you are asked to pass cheese, port or another wine, then pass it to the left until it works its way right round the table.

The other things are all much more obvious: treat the waiting staff, who work incredibly hard, with respect and kindness, and don’t call, shout, walk about or throw things… And don’t use your phone. The Hall managers will enforce discipline if there are issues, but problems occur very rarely.

Formal Hall in Cambridge is unusual, fun and a privilege. Come and enjoy it!

*Please note, if you’re worried that you do not have anything suitable to wear feel free to contact us. It’s a good idea to have some smart clothes for your time in Cambridge, but these do not need to be expensive. We are happy to try and point you to affordable shops in the town centre if you’re struggling to purchase any within your budget.