I was privileged to attend High Table with my "supervisor" (more on this later) on Tuesday night.
As you may remember, each college is comprised of a porter's lodge, student and fellow accommodations, chapel, hall, and library. The latter three are usually the three most significant architectural buildings in the complex, and beautifully proportioned. The "hall" is the space wherein students eat 1-3 meals a day. It has portraits of the greats from the college (Christchurch here in Oxford has Locke, Trinity at Cambridge has Newton) adorning the walls, a minstrel's balcony up top, great, long tables and often older chairs for students in the main part of the dining area, and a raised area (usually six inches to one foot) at the head of the room where a table, or "high table" is place perpendicular to the other student tables. Here the fellows ("faculty" in the states) dine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Not everyone eats all meals there - I am often only there once a day, preferring to eat things like breakfast while e-scribbling away on this blog.) There is a "servery" to the side of the hall, a cafeteria-like procession where food can be purchased for a great bargain.
Once a week at most colleges, sometimes every night at more formal colleges (Christchurch), dinner is served in more formal fashion, called "Formal Hall". The servery staff act as waiters and waitresses, and a three-course meal is laid out. Students and fellows are usually adorned in their robes.
Students are usually invited for drinks preceding the dinner in some reception area, then promptly take their seats at about 7:15. After students are seated, a gong or bell is rung, and students will rise as the the fellows and guests, assembled in an anterior room dubbed the "Senior Common Room," walk in in procession to the high table at the front of the room. Once the fellows are arrayed appropriately next to their seats, the head of house will usually pronounce a preset blessing in Latin on the food, after which some Latin phrase is often repeated by those present in response (I can never tell what this is unless Amen is uttered), and then all may sit to eat the first course, followed by the second and dessert.
Conservation at High Table is at its best. Intellectual topics of all ranges are discussed. Everyone is expected to contribute. The food is usually good. And then, all of a sudden, mid-sentence or no, a gong is again sounded, everyone stands as best they can without knocking over their chairs, a benediction is uttered, and the fellows and guests leave in procession.
The fellows then retire to the Senior Common Room (again, usually well-proportioned) for coffee or tea, wine and sometimes a little dessert (again). Thankfully, a non-alcoholic or non-coffee substitute is offered (usually orange juice or herbal tea). Again, the conversations range, but the seating arrangement should be mixed up so that people have an opportunity to speak with different fellows.
Each college has a variant on this theme. For instance, at Lady Margaret, we do not wear robes. After being exhausted by years of Washington "rubber chicken dinners" as I like to call them, Formal Hall and particularly High Table are an unexpected delight. I suppose this is what the Vice Chancellor meant at matriculation when he said my education would go far beyond what I learn in the classroom.