Trinity Great Court
Starting in the northeast corner at E staircase, in which Isaac Newton had his rooms, and moving clockwise, one first reaches the Porters' Lodge and Great Gate, begun in 1490 as the entrance to King's Hall and completed in 1535. The Great Gate is home to the famous statue of founder Henry VIII whose sceptre was replaced by a chair leg by students in the 19th century. Next comes the East Range, and staircases F-K (with J omitted out of tradition) that contain the college bursary and rooms principally housing fellows of the college. Staircase I leads to Angel Court, containing rooms for students and fellows, and to the college bar.
The South Range runs from staircases L–Q with rooms for students and fellows, with Queen's Gate (named after Elizabeth I) as its centrepiece. R staircase can be found in a passage leading to Bishop's Hostel, while S staircase is on the left in the passage leading past the Hall into Nevile's Court. The West Range is dominated by the Great Hall, the college's dining hall modelled on that of Middle Temple, and the Master's Lodge.
The fourth side begins with staircases A–C, before reaching King's Gate (also called Edward III Gateway), and the entrance to the oldest part of the college, the remaining surviving buildings of King's Hall. Originally built on the site of the current sundial in the middle of the court, Nevile moved it 20 metres north when completing the court. King's Gate also houses the famous clock that chimes every 15 minutes and strikes the hour twice. The clock was installed at the request of Master of Trinity Richard Bentley in the 17th century, striking each hour once for the college of his mastership, Trinity, and once for his alma mater, St John's College, Cambridge.
In the centre of the court is an ornate fountain, built during Nevile's time, and traditionally fed by a pipe from Conduit Head in west Cambridge.
The Great Court Run
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Many have tried to run the 341 metres around the court in the 43 seconds that it takes to strike 12 o'clock (actually 24 chimes owing to an odd old tradition), a feat recreated in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire (though filmed in Eton College, not Trinity). Known as the Great Court Run, students traditionally attempt to complete the circuit on the day of the Matriculation Dinner. Only two people are believed to have actually completed the run in the time. The first was Lord Burghley in 1927.
Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram attempted the feat in a charity race on 29 October 1988. Coe's time was reported by Norris McWhirter to have been 45.52 seconds, but it was actually 46.0 seconds (confirmed by the video tape), while Cram's was 46.3 seconds. The clock on that day took 44.4 seconds (i.e. a "long" time, probably two days after the last winding) and the video film confirms that Coe was some 12 metres short of his finish line when the fateful final stroke occurred. The television commentators were suggesting that the dying sounds of the bell could be included in the striking time, thereby allowing Coe's run to be claimed as successful.
This conflicts with Trinity College's website, which states:
"In October 1988 the race was recreated for charity by Britain's two foremost middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram. Daley Thompson, the decathlete, was a reserve. Coe won, getting round in 42.53 seconds. Alas, he didn't quite beat the chimes, as the clock had been wound the day before, and the chimes ran somewhat faster than their usual 43 seconds because of the extra turn of rope on the drum." The event was organized by 36 year old undergraduate Nigel McCrery and raised £50,000 for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.
In 2007, Sam Dobin was seen to 'beat' the clock in a time of 42.77s, improving on his 3rd place finish the previous year. Dobin's achievement received national newspaper coverage which reported it as the fastest time in the history of the race, beating Burghley and Coe's efforts. However, the route taken by competitors around the court has changed over the years, thus making the accomplishment much more attainable. The current route — running on the cobbles rather than the path — cuts the distance down to 299m (the perimeter of the grass) as opposed to 341m (the perimeter of the cobbles). This is 12% shorter, reducing the pace required from Olympic to a level manageable by hundreds of good club athletes across the country. It also enables the four sharp corners to be "rounded off" so that runners do not need to slow down appreciably when taking the corners.
It is interesting to note that David Cecil, the only man to achieve the Great Court Run prior to 2007, and Sebastian Coe, the man who came closest to achieving the feat between Cecil's and Dobin's successes, both achieved the multiple distinctions of Olympic Champion, Member of both Houses of Parliament, and Chairman of London Olympics Organising Committee (David Cecil, 1948 Olympics; Sebastian Coe, 2012 Olympics).
Other factors affect the timing of the Great Court Run. The speed at which the bells strike is governed by a mechanical fly which can be seen in operation on the photos page of the Trinity College Clock website. The fly uses air resistance to govern the speed at which the striking mechanism turns and as such the speed depends most importantly on the density of the air. The duration of the striking of twelve thus depends on the meteorological conditions of the day in question. On a cold, dry, high-pressure day the bells strike more slowly than on a warm, humid low-pressure day. The difference is as much as 15% which is 6 seconds out of the "normal" 43 seconds. For typical October days (the official run takes place in October) the likely difference is more modest +/- 1 second. Runners in mid winter will have the best chance of completing the circuit before the bells have finished.
A less structured event, the Caucus Race, occurs during the summer long vacation when undergraduates who have summer courses gather all around Great Court just before two o'clock dressed in their academic robes. Great Court is divided into six rectangular lawns and the objective of the race is to circumnavigate all six individualy and in all their combinations, which requires a mathematical brain to plan well, and end at the fountain. The entry fee is a pint of beer. As soon as the clock starts to strike everyone starts running around whatever route they have chosen, much to the consternation of the tourists. On reaching the fountain everyone gets a prize of a pint of beer. It has been done in 14 minutes but that is exceptional.
The final part of the court is completed by the chapel, begun by Mary I in 1554 in memory of her father. The ante-chapel contains statues of many famous Trinity men, including Roubiliac's sculpture of Isaac Newton, and the altarpiece is Benjamin West's St Michael and the Devil.
The chapel contains a fine organ built by the Swiss firm of Metzler in 1975 — one of only two instruments by this respected maker in Great Britain. It is contained within the restored late seventeenth-century case built by perhaps England's most famous organ builder "Father" Smith. The Metzler organ incorporates some surviving pipes from this instrument.
The exact external dimensions of the four sides of Great Court are:
- South — 87.8m (82.5m)
- West — 105.2m (99.9m)
- North — 78.3m (69.4m)
- East — 99.4m (88.9m)
which enclose an area of approximately 1.8 acres (7,300 square metres). (The figures given in parentheses are the distances run on the flagstones for the Great Court Run)
- Stephen Brewer, Donald Olson (2006). Best Day Trips from London: 25 Great Escapes by Train, Bus Or Car. Frommer's. p. 56. ISBN 0-470-04453-5.
- George Macaulay Trevelyan (1943). Trinity College: An Historical Sketch. The University Press.
- "Great Court Run". Trinity College, Cambridge.
- Yeebo, Yepoka (October 27, 2007). "Student breaks "Chariots of Fire" record". London: The Times. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
- "Trinity College Clock monitoring website". Trinity College, Cambridge.
- Christopher Thorne, Trinity Great Court Run: The Facts, Achilles Club Annual Report, 2001
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