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Formal Dinners at Oriel

By Charlotte ‘Poddy’ Wilson

In 2026, Oriel College will celebrate its 700th birthday. As one might expect from such an old college, there are many aspects of life within it that lean more towards the traditional. For one thing, Oriel offers formal dining six days a week. Informal dining is also available an hour earlier, but for just £8.45, Oriel students can enjoy a sumptuous three-course meal in gowns and formal attire.

In recent weeks, renovation work has begun on a large section of the college, which won’t be completed until the end of the academic year, and in the meantime, dining has been moved to the senior library, so I thought it proper to commemorate the times I’ve enjoyed in that centuries-old hall.

At 7.15, or 7.30 on Wednesdays and Sundays, guests take their seats along the benches. There is no seating plan, so you may find yourself playing a few rounds of musical chairs as you slide up and down the benches to make room for everyone! In days gone by, students would have walked along the tables to find their seats – as seen in the 1984 film, Oxford Blues, which was set in Oriel, but for some reason that particular tradition has since been done away with! Photos are permitted in hall, but only when the High Table is not present, and so when the far door of the hall opens to permit the most senior academics and the provost, phones must disappear. When the gavel is struck, everyone in the hall rises to hear the grace, before sitting down once more to enjoy the meal.

Wine is available to purchase at the table by filling out a paper slip, but there is also a soft option, and a choice of still or sparkling water. Course by course, the wonderful catering team bring out the delicious dishes, whilst the guests engage in conversation with one another. On Sundays, once the dinner has finished, and the High Table members have departed (with us standing up once more to see them out), the merriment can continue for postgrads in the MCR (Middle Common Room).

There are also a number of special occasions throughout the year in hall. The women’s formal is always one of my favourite events: in the one I most recently attended, we heard a number of wonderful guest speakers, who made up Oriel’s first ever all-female High Table. In second year, we also had Halfway Hall (which, unsurprisingly, marks the halfway point of 3-year courses), in which the courses were interspersed with silly awards, as voted for by the year group. There are regular Guest Nights in each term, which begin with a champagne reception, and in which gowns are not required – I had a wonderful time brining my parents along to one of these!

It is not lost on me how fortunate I’ve been to go to a college where formal halls, which are so indicative of the stereotypical Oxford lifestyle, are so frequent and so heavily subsidised. Every time I’ve had a friend or family member visit, it’s been a fantastic way to show them the best bits of living here. In many ways, it feels like a sort of reward for all the hard academic work, to enjoy as carefully preserved a tradition as formal hall.


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