Reality Checkpoint

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Reality Checkpoint
Detail of its base with graffiti
The inscription after its 2017 restoration.

Reality Checkpoint is the name given to a large cast-iron lamppost in the middle of Parker's Piece, Cambridge, England,[1] located at the intersection of the park's diagonal paths.[2][3]

Origin of the name[edit]

There are four main theories as to the meaning of the name.

  1. It may mark the boundary between the central university area of Cambridge (referred to as the "reality bubble") and the "real world" of non-academic locals living beyond. One is warned to check one's notions of reality before passing.[4] 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".
  2. 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.[citation needed]
  3. 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".[5][6][citation needed]
  4. 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".[citation needed]


The lamppost dates from about 1860[7] and 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 heraldric dolphins. The shaft carries four lamp holders by means of scrolled wrought-iron stays. Presumably it was originally lit by gas and subsequently converted to electricity. It is said be the oldest electrical lamppost in Cambridge.[8]

The post above the dolphins was torn down by American soldiers celebrating VJ Day, the end of the war with Japan. In 1947 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 Granchester Meadows.

A photograph from around 1903 shows the lamppost with a single lamp.[9][10] The current design with four lamps may date from the 1947 repair.

In 1996 the lamppost was designated as a Grade II listed building.[7]

In 2016-17 Cambridge City Council restored the lamppost, reinstating its original colours of moss green, red, white and gold, and casting any new parts as required.[11][12]


One report claims that the name was first painted on the lamppost in the early 1970s by students from the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (now Anglia Ruskin University) under the guidance of one of their teachers.[8]

The name has been repeatedly repainted following its removal by Cambridge City Council or obliteration by graffiti. For the first half of 1998 the lamppost carried an unofficial plaque bearing its name, until removed by the council.[2]

Comedian Ben Miller featured the lamppost in his BBC Two physics documentary "What Is One Degree?" for the science series Horizon.[13] At that time the lamppost had the words "Reality Checkpoint" scratched into its paintwork in at least two places.


  1. ^ Baker, Mike (2001). "Not in front of the parents: How 'education speak' prevents teachers from being heard". Critical Quarterly. 43 (1): 19–24. doi:10.1111/1467-8705.00333. 
  2. ^ a b 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. 
  3. ^ 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..."
  4. ^ "Real World". The Jargon File. Eric S. Raymond. 29 October 2003. Retrieved 11 February 2008. 
  5. ^ "Restoration calls for 'Reality Checkpoint' on Parker's Piece as pictures show its decline". Retrieved 4 May 2016. [permanent dead link]
  6. ^ "Cambridge Parkside Police Station". Google place page. Google Maps. Retrieved 27 April 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Historic England. "Lamp Standard (1268376)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 27 April 2014. 
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^ "Parker's Piece, Cambridge. c.1903". Retrieved 27 April 2014. 
  10. ^ "Parker's Pieces". Retrieved 27 April 2014. 
  11. ^ "'Reality Checkpoint' to be restored to former glory | Cambridge City Council". Archived from the original on 28 August 2016. Retrieved 7 July 2016. 
  12. ^ Leng, Freya (2 August 2016). "Cambridge's most famous street lamp just weeks away from being restored to former glory". Cambridge News. Retrieved 2 August 2016. [permanent dead link]
  13. ^ "What Is One Degree?". Horizon. 10 January 2010. Retrieved 10 January 2010. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 52°12′08″N 0°07′41″E / 52.202175°N 0.128179°E / 52.202175; 0.128179