The quiet serenity of families enjoying a sunny bank holiday weekend in Cambridge city centre was punctured on Sunday afternoon as 1,000 Cambridge University students descended on Jesus Green, ignoring pleas from their colleges not to attend the riotous annual party held to celebrate the start of the summer term.
‘Caesarian Sunday’ caused embarrassment for the university last year when students were snapped fighting, stripping off, vomiting and urinating in flower beds during the outdoor party, which has become an institution for the university’s drinking societies. But while some students had tamed their behaviour since last year’s scandal, which involved people carrying a pig’s head on a spike and girls drinking port from condoms, families were still shocked by the debauchery and drunkenness on display from some of the country’s most revered students, some of whom had been drinking since the previous evening.
"There’s a fine line between having fun and being disrespectful," says Amanda Colbrain, a local mother, "I shouldn’t have to explain to my daughter why a girl wearing bunny ears is falling down drunk or why a woman is sitting on a semi-naked man and licking cream off his chest."
Colbrain, who was picnicking in the park to celebrate a birthday with some friends, said her children had walked around spotting ‘various puke points dotted about the green’.
"We’re Cambridge families so we expect the students to be around, but when they’re swearing and acting like their drunken behaviour is funny in front of our children it stops being just a day out. It’s embarrassing for their colleges," she says.
A photographer from The Sun was ‘strongarmed’ by a group of male students, one witness claimed, after he was wrongly recognised as a journalist for The Daily Mail, a paper widely distrusted by Cambridge students after reporting on the nudity and violence of previous years.
Members of drinking societies wearing nothing but underwear and native American headdresses with swear words and genitals drawn on their backs and arms partied alongside different groups people dressed as schoolgirls, cheerleaders, ancient Greeks, and groups of men wearing three-piece suits and bow ties.
The societies use the event as a bizarre initiation ritual for new members and to launch a summer of drinking parties after the end of final exams. Suicide Sunday, a garden party held in the coming weeks, is organised by the Wyverns, an all-male Magdalene College drinking society, and has been running for 80 years.
"We’ve got that to look forward to next," says Colbrain, "and that is a million times worse than this."
But while members of drinking societies sang, played loud music and drank recklessly, a majority of other students stayed on their best behaviour, keen to show that they honour the tradition of respectability of their university.
"[My college] emailed us asking us not to attend the party today," says Ellie, a first-year history student from Brighton. "But my friends and I know that we could come here, have a good time, and not embarrass our colleges. It’s about having a bit of self control."
"You will always get people drinking on a sunny day in a park in a big city, and people swearing and having fights," she added. "Maybe it’s a sad thing that people behave that way, but I don’t see why Cambridge students have to be any different, we’re just normal people."
Fellow student Tom, who studies architecture, said: "We’re just acting like freshers; we’re having a good time today, but tomorrow we’ll go back to working really hard. If this party was happening at any other university no one would consider it strange; just because it’s Cambridge university, one crazy night gets blown out of all proportion."
But some students were not as keen to defend the partying. Alice, watching from the sidelines with a friend, condemned the drinking societies as ‘embarrassing’ for the university, but went on to say that the parties are not ‘that bad’.
"I’m from the North," she said. "This just looks like quite a tame party to me. But the drinking societies are what the colleges should stop, I won’t be joining one," she said.
After the media coverage last year’s party attracted, Cambridge University recently proposed that the party be moved inside Jesus College, away from the eyes of the public. However students opposed the plans, claiming they didn’t want to have their drinking restricted or policed by the university.
On whether the venue change might have been a good idea, one student who did not want to be named said: "just because I go to Cambridge it doesn’t mean that I am tied to my college. I can do what I want with my bank holiday, and if some people want to cause trouble then there’s nothing the colleges will be able to do to stop it."
Caesarian Sunday takes place on the first bank holiday of the summer term and is regarded as the last opportunity to let off steam before gruelling final exams. It is said to have started more than 100 years ago when a member of the Green Giants society stole a bottle of Pimm's from a Caesarian. Now, every year, the president of Girton College JCR drinks a bottle of Pimm's and invites the ‘rival’ Jesus society to fight.
A number of students had their details taken by police officers who maintained a constant presence in the park throughout Sunday, but no arrests were made.