Cambridge's great Santa hat mystery

All in all, student pranks just aren't what they were
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Top ten places to find a Santa hat: on the snowy white head of a jolly Christmas Santa; up the bloodied nose of a Santa's elf at Lapland New Forest; on the statue of Churchill in Parliament Square... No, it would be a long list of places in which one would be likely to find a Santa hat before anyone started guessing the spire above the Gate of Humility at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.

It took three fire crews more than an hour to get the hat down last week, while another in a similarly precipitous position at Clare College has yet to be removed. But the question remains: how did the hats get up there? One incredulous student reported: "In my experience, the spire of the Gate of Humility cannot be climbed," before adding, with lightning powers of deduction, "although if there's a similar hat at Clare it suggests someone has scaled the buildings". Go to the top of the class.

All of this would doubtless not have amused Charles Astor Bristed, an American student who spent five years (he must have been a slow learner) studying classics at Cambridge in the 1840s. The diary of this high-minded scholar is to be published, it has been announced, and it shows that innocent japes involving hats and spires would have been the tip of the iceberg of student ribaldry in 19th-century academia.

"A pretty face is a rare sight in Cambridge," wrote Mr Bristed, obviously some looker, scandalously. He added, in great shock, that students would take in tramps for the evening and get them drunk just for the fun of it, and that they would invite him to visit prostitutes with them "just as quietly as a compatriot might have asked me take a drink". Well, if you will go to Trinity...

Santa hats aside, the modern student stunt does seem to be lacking a certain derring-do. At the website, which recommends all manner of tricks and japery for those with very little imagination, the most viewed videos are in the manner of larks too boring, stupid or nose-splittingly dangerous to be shown on You've Been Framed: surfing down the stairs of a halls of residence on an ironing board; getting off a bar stool head first and backwards; putting your pal in a tumble drier and watching him spin; persuading Boris Johnson to down a shot of Aftershock ("go on, Sir, it's just like aniseed") as he walks down the street. It makes dyeing the college cat look like imaginative genius.

At Worcester University, such is the dearth of originality that the students' union has issued strict warnings about the stealing of traffic cones, along with stern words from Section 22A(1) of the Road Traffic Act 1988. "Being drunk is not an excuse," it advises.

At American universities the students, being more jock-like and efficient than our own shambolic lot, have made good, clean, organised fun out of their student pranks: plonking all manner of objects (a snowman, a plastic cow, a fire truck ...) on top of the Great Dome at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; stealing Yale's mascot for Princeton; stealing Princeton's mascot for Yale...

But the prank to beat is the 1958 triumph by a group of Cambridge engineering students. This year, Peter Davey revealed for the first time how he and his friends hoisted an Austin Seven on to the roof of the Senate House in the dead of night, and left it balancing there magnificently. The perpetrators went on to win awards and a CBE for their talents in engineering. Perhaps their successors at Caius will go on to become elves.