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Trinity's Great Court looking north, showing the King's Gate, Chapel, Fountain and the Great Gate

Great Court is the main court of Trinity College, Cambridgemarker, and reputed to be the largest enclosed court in Europe.

The court was completed by Thomas Nevile, master of the college, in the early years of the 17th century, when he rearranged the existing buildings to form a single court.

Starting in the northeast corner at E staircase, in which Isaac Newton had his rooms, and moving clockwise, one first reaches the Porters' Lodge and Great Gate, begun in 1490 as the entrance to King's Hall and completed in 1535. The Great Gate is home to the famous statue of founder Henry VIII whose sceptre was replaced by a chair leg by students in the 19th century. Next comes the East Range, and staircases F-K (with J omitted out of tradition) that contain the college bursary and rooms principally housing fellows of the college. Staircase I leads to Angel Court, containing rooms for students and fellows, and to the college bar.

Trinity's main entrance, the Great Gate, leading to the Great Court

The South Range runs from staircases L–Q with rooms for students and fellows, with Queen's Gate (named after Elizabeth I) as its centrepiece. R staircase can be found in a passage leading to New Court, while S staircase is on the left in the passage leading past the Hall into Nevile's Court. The West Range is dominated by the Great Hall, the college's dining hall modelled on that of Middle Templemarker, and the Master's Lodge.

The fourth side begins with staircases A–C, before reaching King's Gate (also called Edward III Gateway), and the entrance to the oldest part of the college, the remaining surviving buildings of King's Hall. Originally built on the site of the current sundial in the middle of the court, Nevile moved it 20 metres north when completing the court. King's Gate also houses the famous clock that chimes every 15 minutes and strikes the hour twice. The clock was installed at the request of Master of Trinity Richard Bentley in the 17th century, striking each hour once for the college of his mastership, Trinity, and once for his alma mater, St John's College, Cambridgemarker.

In the centre of the court is an ornate fountain, built during Nevile's time, and traditionally fed by a pipe from Conduit Head in west Cambridge.

The Great Court Run

Many have tried to run the 341 metres around the court in the 43 seconds that it takes to strike 12 o'clock (actually 24 chimes due to an odd old tradition), a feat recreated in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire (though filmed in Eton Collegemarker, not Trinity). Known as the Great Court Run, students traditionally attempt to complete the circuit on the day of the Matriculation Dinner. Only three people are believed to have actually completed the run in the time. Two of these are Lord Burghley in 1927 and Sebastian Coe when he beat Steve Cram in a charity race in October 1988, though this latter claim is somewhat dubious.

Sebastian Coe's time on 29 October 1988 was reported by Norris McWhirter to have been 45.52 seconds, but it was actually 46.0 seconds (confirmed by the video tape), while Cram's was 46.3 seconds. The clock on that day took 44.4 seconds (i.e. a "long" time, probably two days after the last winding) and the video film confirms that Coe was some 12 meters short of his finish line when the fateful final stroke occurred. The television commentators were more than a little disingenuous in suggesting that the dying sounds of the bell could be included in the striking time, thereby allowing Coe's run to be claimed as successful.

It must be noted that this conflicts with Trinity College's website, which states:

"In October 1988 the race was recreated for charity by Britain's two foremost middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram. Daley Thompson, the decathlete, was a reserve. Coe won, getting round in 42.53 seconds. Alas, he didn't quite beat the chimes, as the clock had been wound the day before, and the chimes ran somewhat faster than their usual 43 seconds because of the extra turn of rope on the drum."The event was organized by 36 year old undergraduate Nigel McCrery and raised £50,000 for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Childrenmarker.

In 2007, Sam Dobin was seen to 'beat' the clock in a time of 42.77s, improving on his 3rd place finish the previous year. Dobin's achievement received national newspaper coverage which reported it as the fastest time in the history of the race, beating Burghley and Coe's efforts. However it must be noted that the route taken by competitors around the court has changed over the years, thus making the accomplishment much more attainable. The current route — running on the cobbles rather than the path — cuts the distance down to 299m (the perimeter of the grass) as opposed to 341m (the perimeter of the cobbles). This is 12% shorter, reducing the pace required from Olympic to a level manageable by hundreds of good club athletes across the country. It also enables the four sharp corners to be "rounded off" so that runners do not need to slow down appreciably when taking the corners.

In 2001 the race was won by Adrian Hemery, son of the famous 400m hurdler and Olympic Champion David Hemery. Adrian was succeeded by his friend and training partner Mike Collins in 2002.

Recent winners:
  • 2001: Adrian Hemery
  • 2002: Mike Collins
  • 2003: Huw Watson (AUS)
  • 2004: Calum Nicholson
  • 2005: Chris Wilson
  • 2006: Dany Gammall
  • 2007: Sam Dobin
  • 2008: Edgar Engel

It is interesting to note that the two men who are reckoned to have achieved the Great Court Run prior to 2007, David Cecil and Sebastian Coe, both achieved the multiple distinctions of Olympic Champion, Member of both Houses of Parliament, and Chairman of London Olympics Organising Committee (David Cecil, 1948 Olympics; Sebastian Coe, 2012 Olympics).

Other factors affect the timing of the Great Court Run. The speed at which the bells strike is governed by a mechanical fly which can be seen in operation on the photos page of the Trinity College Clock website. The fly uses air resistance to govern the speed at which the striking mechanism turns and as such the speed depends most importantly on the density of the air. The duration of the striking of twelve thus depends on the meteorological conditions of the day in question. On a cold, dry, high-pressure day the bells strike more slowly than on a warm, humid low-pressure day. The difference is as much as 15% which is 6 seconds out of the "normal" 43 seconds. For typical October days (the official run takes place in October) the likely difference is more modest +/- 1 second. Runners in mid winter will have the best chance of completing the circuit before the bells have finished.

The Chapel

The final part of the court is completed by the chapel, begun by Mary I in 1554 in memory of her father. The ante-chapel contains statues of many famous Trinity men, including Roubiliac's sculpture of Isaac Newton, and the altarpiece is Benjamin West's St Michael and the Devil.

The chapel contains a fine organ built by the Swissmarker firm of Metzler in 1975 — one of only two instruments by this respected maker in Great Britain. It is contained within the restored late seventeenth-century case built by perhaps England's most famous organ builder "Father" Smith. The Metzler organ incorporates some surviving pipes from this instrument.

Clock tower in Great Court


The exact external dimensions of the four sides of Great Court are:
  • South — 87.8m (82.5m)
  • West — 105.2m (99.9m)
  • North — 78.3m (69.4m)
  • East — 99.4m (88.9m)
which enclose an area of approximately 1.8 acres (7,300 square metres). (The figures given in parentheses are the distances run on the flagstones for the Great Court Run)


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