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Amazing and quirky UK university traditions

Updated: Dec 3, 2023


Britain is famous for its long-established, fascinating, eccentric and sometimes outright bizarre traditions, and UK universities are no exception.

Britain is famous for its long-established, fascinating, eccentric and sometimes outright bizarre traditions, and UK universities are no exception.


British universities like Oxford and Cambridge have a long and rich history and, unsurprisingly, have developed their fair share of fun rituals and interesting customs that you have probably never heard of before.


University of St Andrews - May Dip and Gaudie


One of the oldest universities in the UK (it's located in Scotland) has a couple of really fun traditions that hundreds of students participate in every year.


The first, most widely known one is May Dip which takes place on May 1. To take part in it, students gather at the East Sands beach in St Andrews (a seaside town on the coast of Fife) and together run into the cold North Sea at sunrise.


This unique tradition is believed to bring good luck to students in their exams and protect them from the legendary curse of Patrick Hamilton, the first martyr of the Scottish Reformation to die for his faith. Hamilton was burnt at the stake outside the front entrance to St Salvator's Chapel belonging to the University of St Andrews. According to the old tradition, if a student steps on this spot marked with a monogram of Hamilton's initials set into the cobblestones of the pavement, he or she is at risk of failing their exams or degree.


The evening before the May Dip, students also participate in the Gaudie - a torchlit procession from the university to the East Sands pier led by the pipers. It's done in memory of another St Andrews student John Honey who was just 19 when he heroically saved crew members of a small ship that had run aground east of the town harbour on 5 January 1800.


University of Oxford - May Morning and Time Ceremony


Another ancient British university has its own May tradition. It's part of the May Morning celebrations that are believed to be over 500 years old and date back to the completion in 1509 of Magdalen Tower, a bell tower that forms part of Magdalen College, Oxford.


At 6 in the morning on May 1 Oxford University students together with other city residents gather along the High Street and on Magdalen Bridge to listen to the Magdalen College Choir (it was founded in 1480 and is now regarded as one of the finest ensembles in the UK) singing a traditional hymn Hymnus Eucharisticus and one of England's most well-known and popular madrigals"Now Is the Month of Maying" from the top of Magdalen Tower. Local pubs, cafes and restaurants honour this tradition by opening earlier than usual and offering food and refreshments, and many students stay up all night before the event.


Oxford also has another, delightfully quirky tradition - the so-called 'Time Ceremony'. Once a year at 2 am on the last Sunday in October, Merton College students walk backwards around the Fellows' Quad in their formal academic dress, drinking port... to make sure the clocks go back successfully.


The first 'Time Ceremony' took place in 1971, the final year of a trial that saw the UK adopt permanent British Summer Time (BST) for three years. Nowadays, BST starts in March when the clocks go forward by one hour in spring and ends in October 'reverting' to GMT (the clocks turn back one hour which gives an extra hour of light at the start of the day in winter).


Durham University - College Marriage


Although not as old as the traditions described above, it deserves a spot among the most fascinating student customs in the UK.


According to this tradition, Durham University students get to 'marry' their peers and make all kinds of fun 'proposals' (from private gestures to public extravaganzas). And it serves a very important purpose: 'married' students can then 'adopt' freshers and guide and support them while they are adjusting to university life!


Want to learn about what it's like to study in the UK and how to get into the best universities in the country? LEO International Online School offers a diverse and intensive two–year A-Level programme designed to prepare students for university entry in the United Kingdom. Learn more about this programme and our other courses here, and don't hesitate to contact us at info@leo-school.uk.

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