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Beating the Bounds 1999

As former editors and the reader of this yearbook will remember, I was lucky enough to be researching in Portugal last year, from which I reported on strange academic rituals in the city of Braga. I ought to be there now, gearing up to take photos of the St John's Day Festival on June 24th, when the locals stay up all night and beat each other over the head with squeaky hammers. But for some reason involving a non-existent grant, I'm not. So, with the theme of beating still in mind, let me tell you instead about the Oxford ritual of the Annual Perambulation or Beating the Bounds.

The ceremony starts opposite the end of St. Michael's Street at the Church of St. Michael at the North Gate, so named because that's where the north gate once was. Anyone can come — local or tourist, Christian or non-Christian — but it is not widely advertised, the Church being small and places for the closing lunch being limited. We start at 9am with a communion service. This finishes at 9:45, and we line up in the little path that leads to Ship Street. The sound of clattering wood can be heard from inside the porch, and one of the helpers emerges to hand out bamboo canes from a huge bundle.

This year, the media have not appeared. But that's unusual. There'll usually be somebody toting a microphone or video camera, whether for Fox FM or the Oxford Mail. Once, TV presenter Chris Searle apparently turned up, as part of his series "Anything you can learn in six years, I can master in a day". I gather he'd already piloted both a hang-glider and a Concorde, conducted at the Albert Hall, and was in search of relaxation before canoing down Niagara Falls.

Leaving the church, we stop at the first "mark", a stone in the wall near Boots. Beating the Bounds started, according to St. Michael's, in 1428. At that time, there were no maps, and knowledge about the parish boundaries lived largely in the heads of church members. To check no-one was encroaching on their land, the congregation would walk once a year from one boundary "mark" to the next, shouting "Mark, Mark, Mark" at each and beating it with sticks. The choristers used to be beaten, the better to remember the boundaries, but EU law now forbids this. Nowadays, the ceremony takes place every Ascension Day, and to mark a stone, the vicar strides up to it, chalks a cross, and then writes the letters S M N G round it while intoning the words "St Michael at the North Gate Nineteen Ninety Nine" or whatever. Wishing to preserve his eyes, he then steps out of the way pretty smartish, while everyone else thrashes the stone and cries "Mark, Mark, Mark". This is a great way to release aggression: if you're really feeling energetic, you can wear out three whole canes.

We now cross Cornmarket and enter Littlewoods. One year when we did so, a punk relaxing in the entrance with his bottle shouted at me that I "was dressed like a fucking wanker, mate" or some similar friendly local greeting. Given that he was wearing a bright-blue Mohican crest and a spider web design that looked tattoed across his forehead with a blunt biro, this did not seem fair: all I has on was my subfusc, an M.A. gown with those silly false sleeves that don't actually have holes for your hands, and an M.A. hood. It's traditional for participants to wear their dress of office: academic dress for University members, caps and woggles for the Boy Scouts who sometimes take part, and gold chain of office for the Mayor. The whole procession can look striking: the vicar holding aloft a huge silver and black cross, followed by the choristers in bright red surplices, and the academics in their gowns.

Entering Littlewoods, we march through to the back of the shop, where the manager holds open the door to the shop's loading bay. At the back of this concrete blockhouse, between two metal shelves full of coffee, there's another boundary marker. Again, the vicar chalks his cross, makes the letters, and steps back to avoid having his eyes put out by the violently beating sticks. Littlewoods's manager looks on warily, just in case temptation should prove too much for someone.

We exit into the New Inn Hall side of Shoe Lane, and proceed into the Brasenose Frewin Court Annexe, where there are two more marks. One is in the east wall of the annexe, set as near as possible to the loading bay marker on the opposite side. It's at the back of a flowerbed, and this time it's the Brasenose gardener who looks on warily as a hundred choirboys, students, boy scouts, and general randoms, plus a party of Japanese tourists who just happened to be passing and have been invited to join in, trample his petunias.

We then leave the annexe, beat a mark opposite St Peter's College, and then cross over and march into its Lodge, trying not to get our canes caught in the automatic doors, and through the Linton quadrangle simulated wood-grain concrete "cloisters" into Mulberry Quad. We beat another mark behind the tree before taking our first refreshments, of orange juice and biccies, in the college bar.

We then retrace our steps through the college, and cross the street, descending a flight of rickety steps at the back of O'Neills to a basement-level marker set into the wall next to an air-conditioning outlet. The vicar will have been busy over the past weeks, writing to all the shop owners to give us an unimpeded route. From behind O'Neills, we assemble outside the back door of the opticians, waiting to be conducted past the spectacle-frame display racks and out the front door into George Street. It's fun to watch the expressions of the unsuspecting eye-test victims as we pass into view: you get the impression that several will end up buying glasses that they do not in fact need.

Let's skip lightly over the next part of the route, as we go up George Street, past Mary Magdalen and up the Broad into the Bodleian quadrangle. At this time of morning, the Broad is full of tour guides, whose credibility you can see plummet as they attempt to explain us to their gaggles of suddenly confused Americans and Japanese. Their force-learnt recitations about Univ not really being founded by King Alfred, and where Boyle discovered his law, have not prepared them for this. Better than the tour-buses though, unless their owners have provided them with specially-programmed Nederlandse Kommentaren and Commentaires aux Francaise for this one morning. One thing the guides do get right though, and that the vicar unsurprisingly stops for as well, is the iron cross outside Balliol where Archbishop Cranmer was burnt to death — "67 years old, dressed in a shirt down to his ankles, with bare feet, bare head, and his long thick beard singed down to his chest".

After the Bodleian quadrangle, we digress down Brasenose Lane. This was once called St. Mildred's Alley, after a church of the same name which was pulled down to make way for Lincoln. Then we enter Brasenose. From the front quad, there's that splendid and imposing view of the Radcliffe Camera looming above the main gate, the "eyes" in its dome frowning down at us. Another marker or two, and more refreshments in the bar — coffee and cake this time — before leaving via the High Street entrance and crossing to Shepherd and Woodward. By the end of the morning, I shall have seen many historic locations unknown to the average Oxonian — Littlewoods loading bay amongst them — and now we visit another, the Shepherd and Woodward bicycle shed, a marker half-way along its back wall. Then along Blue Boar Street, through the back of the Town Hall and past a room full of ancient printing presses, to emerge into St Aldates.

We continue up to the back of Marks and Spencer. When the shop was planned, permission was granted on condition that a boundary marker on the site be preserved. The stone was moved a few feet and put into a glass display case (on the left as you enter, about half-way along), and its old location indicated by a metal cross built into the floor. We troop through the food hall and towards the ladies' underwear, where we stand around the cross, trying to avoid dislodging hangers-full of blouses and knickers as we thrash.

Then one of the assistants beckons us up the "Staff Only" stairs to the staff restaurant, where we can relax with plastic tumblers of white wine, and plates of biscuits and sausage rolls. From the concourse outside, there's an excellent view over the houses to the south into Pembroke. We must be quick, because the first sitting will enter at noon, and the canteen is already turning up the heat under the pans of spaghetti bolognaise, lasagne, and apple crumble.

You will notice I'm being careful to name all the shops. That's because I hope to sell this article as advertising, and my commission will depend on the number of times I mention each one. So, back down Marks and Spencers's staff stairs, past posters telling us to watch out for shoplifters and who won the previous week's Customer Service Award, with a bar chart comparing the groups' performances and an honourable mention for Jenny who sold 277 cardigans above quota. Always remember that A Customer Served is a Customer Saved; or has the church connection just inspired me to make that up? Then via Queen Street, Principles, Littlewoods, Cornmarket, Boots, and out through the back of Boots and into Bar Oz. There's a marker under the carpet, and when this pub used to be the Roebuck, the landlord would serve sherry to the adults and sweets for the children. But no longer.

Next to Bar Oz lies a chained-off parking space. From this, there's a side entrance into the Covered Market, and just inside, a small iron gate, usually locked. When it's unlocked, you can go down a flight of stairs into a musty tunnel lined with white-painted bricks, which runs in an L-shape under the market and ends, I believe, under Heroes Sandwich Bar. The tunnel is like a comic-book mediaeval dungeon. High arched entrances on each side open into small rooms thick with the stench of rotting flesh. The smell comes from huge freezers, throbbing like trucks revving up, where the butchers store their sides of beef. It is quite disgusting, and I recommend the experience to anyone not yet converted to vegetarianism. At the end of the tunnel, there's a white painted wall, and in it, yet another marker. Sadly, we weren't allowed down this year, and had to trace out the route above ground.

That's almost the end: after marching through the bike shop, being careful not to catch our canes in the bikes hanging from the ceiling, we round the corner into Lincoln, mark the final two stones and stop in Hall for lunch. This is free, and is basically a huge ploughman's lunch — slabs of pork pie and cheese; fresh lettuce, radishes, spring onions and tomatoes; dishes of pickle; a doughnut for desert. This year, the service wasn't up to normal standards, because the kitchens were being rebuilt. Apparently, they're the oldest continuously operating kitchens in Europe, having been going since the 15th Century. But the Council has decided they really must be renovated at last, and they are now a 30 foot hole in the ground.

Despite this, Lincoln still managed to serve the traditional ivy beer. There are several little corners to this custom. The first is that the "ivy" is not wall ivy (which is poisonous), but ground ivy (a relative of mint, sage, and similar herbs). This is what the British flavoured beer with before hops arrived from Europe. Lincoln's beer was once "brewed to a secret recipe known only to Alf the kitchenman" — dark-green, slightly sweet, and not at all bitter — perhaps dating from when, like most colleges, Lincoln had its own brewery. Now, though, it's made by steeping a teabag full of herbs in a barrel of Morlands bitter, and tastes like Old Speckled Hen that's been kept in the sun too long.

The second is that the beer is served only once a year, on Ascension Day. It's served with lunch to everyone who beats the bounds; in addition, all Brasenose members are invited to partake, entering via a little passage called the Needle's Eye which connect the backs of the two colleges, and is opened only on this one morning. I once made an American tourist very happy by leading her twice through the Needle's Eye and telling her she'd had a unique experience that she could tell all her friends about when she got home.

And why is the beer served anyway? The story goes that, many hundreds of years ago, a mob of townies was stoning a group of students outside Lincoln College. The porter let in all the Lincoln students, but refused sanctuary to a Brasenose man who was with them. The mob stoned him to death; and ever since, Lincoln has had to make penance by brewing the beer and offering it to Brasenose. Town-versus-gown violence, now found mainly on the 1 and 7A buses after midnight, was once more common: look up the 1355 St Scholastica's Day Massacre, when a number of chaplains were scalped, several scholars were buried up to their necks in dung, and over sixty students were killed while most of the rest ran away.

Finally, replete with food and clutching a plastic glass in my hand (the beer is served in silver tankards, but you can't take them out of Hall), I go outside to witness the tossing of pennies. In this part of the ceremony, Lincoln students sit on the roofs of the front quad with trays full of pennies. Some are cold; other have been heated until they're just hot enough to be painful to the touch. The students throw them onto the lawn below, and the choristers have to grab them. I used to believe this was a little morality play, enacted to warn the children against greed. But apparently, it was started in the 19th Century by a student who, having seen the children enter each year for lunch, decided it would be fun to tease them afterwards — and it's been going ever since.

Anyway, this ceremony remains, Lincoln quad is pretty, the sun is shining, and I shall have another pint of beer. The vicar sees me and asks whether I'm just settling down to my afternoon's work — do I sense some sarcasm here? But there are still one and a half jugs to go, and only five Brasenose people in sight — I'll consider the matter again after this pint.

June 1999.