Origin of the name
There are four main theories as to the meaning of the name.
- It may mark the boundary between the central university area of Cambridge (referred to as the "reality bubble") and the "real world" of townspeople living beyond. One is warned to check one's notions of reality before passing. For students at Cambridge, who walk out to Mill Road across Parker's piece for an evening in the "real world", usually including a visit to one of Mill Road's selection of pubs, the lamppost marks the end of the "reality holiday" as they walk back to central Cambridge – back into "the bubble".
- The name arose because the lamppost forms a useful landmark for people crossing the park at night – perhaps inebriated or in the fog – since it is the only light for over a hundred metres.
- When drunk, students and the general public are reminded to check they are able to walk like a sober person before passing the police station at the edge of Parker's Piece, hence a "reality check".
- The post being situated in the middle of two walking paths that intersect, anyone walking, or cycling in the fog, whilst not tuned in to "reality" will probably collide with the lamppost, hence "reality checkpoint".
A lamp at the centre of Parker's Piece was first proposed in 1890 and work commenced in January 1894 when a pipe was laid from Parkside, running parallel with the path opposite Melbourne Place. Once the connections were completed, the pillar was erected. This attracted a great deal of interest and was described as a "very handsome ornament to the Piece". It is made of cast iron by the Sun Foundry of George Smith and Company in Glasgow. It stands on a square-section plinth with waterleaf decoration on the top edges. The base of the shaft of circular section is encircled with four intertwined heraldic dolphins. The shaft carries four lamp holders by means of scrolled wrought-iron stays. It is said be the oldest electrical lamppost in Cambridge.
The post above the dolphins was torn down by American soldiers celebrating VJ Day, the end of the war with Japan. In September 1946 the lamppost was repaired by a local metalworks firm, George Lister & Sons, Cambridge. The work was done by foreman Sam Mason, assisted by a young apprentice, Tony Challis, who did the scrollwork at the top of the lamppost. Challis still lives in Cambridgeshire and is also responsible for the ornate railings found at Grantchester Meadows. The current design with four pendant lamps dates from the 1946 repair.
One report claims that the name was first painted on the lamppost in the early 1970s by students from Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University) under the guidance of one of their teachers.
Until the early 1970s the lamppost was painted a dishwater grey or discoloured cream. In 2017 two brothers, David and Sandy Cairncross, revealed that they had been responsible for repainting it in bright colours in October 1973, a task undertaken with the written permission of Geoffrey Cresswell, the Cambridge City Engineer. At the time, David Cairncross was a student at King's College, Cambridge and Sandy Cairncross, a postgraduate research student (now a distinguished epidemiologist). The repainting did not involve anyone from Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology.
The Cairncrosses confirmed that the name "Reality Checkpoint" had previously been inscribed in marker pen on the pillar "a year or two earlier" and that their painting of the name was initially a placeholder for more sophisticated lettering. On how the lamppost got its name, David Cairncross acknowledged the influence of Checkpoint Charlie during the Cold War, and the popularity of Carlos Castaneda’s 1971 memoir A Separate Reality.
The Cairncrosses' repainting remained throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. By 1980 however the lamppost was looking shabby, as was clear in a photograph of the poet Tom Raworth taken next to it in 1980. Eventually Cambridge City Council painted over the decoration with a dull faux verdigris.
Since then the name has been informally inscribed or scratched into the paintwork many times, despite its repeated removal by Cambridge City Council or obliteration by graffiti. At one point in the mid-1990s, according to Graham Chainey writing in The London Magazine, "Reality Checkpoint" was scratched on one side of the plinth, while on the opposite side was scrawled "The Comfortably Numb" - a reference to a song on the album The Wall by the Cambridge band Pink Floyd.
Comedian Ben Miller featured the lamppost in his BBC Two physics documentary "What Is One Degree?" for the science series Horizon. At that time the lamppost had the words "Reality Checkpoint" scratched into its paintwork in at least two places.
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- Hollis, Edward (2009). "Reality Checkpoint" (PDF). CAM (Cambridge Alumni Magazine) (57 (Easter 2009)): 22–27. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 16 August 2009.
- Cambridge News - Lighting trialled on Parker's Piece amid safety fears Archived 30 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine "...the central column known as Reality Checkpoint..."
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- "'Reality Checkpoint' to be restored to former glory | Cambridge City Council". www.cambridge.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 28 August 2016. Retrieved 7 July 2016.
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- Elliott, Chris (3 June 2017). "New Cambridge exhibition features Reality Checkpoint". cambridgenews. Retrieved 3 June 2018.
- Cox, Tara (7 June 2017). "Reality Checkpoint given a makeover as name officially painted on". cambridgenews. Retrieved 3 June 2018.
- Webb, Robert (2018). "Reality Checkpoint".
- "What is Reality Checkpoint?" on cam.wiki
- "Getting to the bottom of the legend of Reality Checkpoint" on cambridge-news.co.uk