Custom contrived: Corpus Christi Tortoise Race, Oxford

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Dreaming spires, gowns, academic prowess – all things associated with one of Britain’s greatest academic establishment. But tortoises? Perhaps not but for Corpus Christi college and a number of other colleges who compete it has been a strong tradition and bizarre break for the academic.

Tortoise’s cannot regulate their body temperature so it did not look good promising for a race when huge clouds appeared above those dreaming spires. But everyone was in good spirits awaiting the tortoise race at the college’s tortoise fair. Many were having picnics and many were adorned with face paintings which showed their affinity with our reptilian races.

What they tortoise at University

Founded by Richard Foxe, Bishop of Worcester and famed for its role in the translation of the bible into English. Tortoise racing is not necessarily appear to come to mind in this setting. However, back in the Trinity Term, local tradition states that a student called Steve Brand, who decided to raise money for RAG by organising a tortoise race as a ‘gentlemanly challenge to Oriel College. Surprisingly, so did Freda from BBC TV’s Blue Peter. According to the College’s journal, the Pelican Record in 1974 the night before the College’s tortoise Christi had disappeared. After much searching he was found in the Cloister’s quad. This moment of freedom, may have affected the result however, the Pelican Record noted:

“Christie, obviously off form after a harrowing night, came third after 21 gruelling minutes and 40 seconds.” 

Tortoises going missing appears to be a bit of a theme. In the 2000s, Balliol College’s Rosa, a winner of number of races was kidnapped the night before and never seen again! Trinity was blamed but nothing was ever proved.

Tortoise racing itself has some history. It was apparently done at the beginning of the last century in Greece being last recorded being done by bored British soldiers on the slope of Mount Olympus using lettuce and shade apparently as lures.

The Tortoise…and the hmmm…tortoise!

In those days tortoises were a bit more common, roll or perhaps, crawl back to the 21st century, and they are not despite this a good field of candidates were produced.

Some of the tortoises however have a long pedigree. Emanuelle from Regent’s College was bought in 1976. Originally thought to be a male and so gained an extra -le. As a regular winner in the 1980s and 90s and even starred in Blue Peter. Indeed it even had a cup named after it.

Over the years there have been tortoises coming and going from Oldham, Sampras, Percy, Archibald, Theodore, Zoom, Shelley. One year there was even a red-eared terrapin for Magdalen College School’s called George! This year there was a large Leopard tortoise which I felt was, being twice as big, quicker than the others as more powerful perhaps. The best name was Aristurtle – the Classic education showing through!

 

Clearly tongue firmly in cheeks as the Oxford Cherwell in 2013 Oxford in suspense for corpus tortoise fair reports:

Sampras, Christ Church’s tortoise. Kishan Koria, the tortoise keeper at Christ Church, says of Sampras: “An understated intellectual colossus (with an IQ of 160+) it has been rumoured that Aesop’s fable was indeed based on Sampras, as was Lewis Carroll’s academic paper on logic ‘What the Tortoise Said to Achilles’.” Kishan adds: “He has been inspired by the Olympics towards a victory for the College who are right behind him.” 

Remember, slow and steady wins the race

Suddenly the bells of the nearby college chimed and everyone descended on an area to the back of the college. We had been watching the College’s cheerleading team – yes I was surprised too – but they were excellent – throwing a man dressed as a turtle into the air when people disappeared to form a large circle crowded around an open space, the arena. To one side were an array of boxes, wooden, cardboard and plastic stuffed with straw and hay in which resided preparing themselves the colleges the tortoises cared for by their devoted keepers. The role of the keeper is a formal elected role in the College and one not taken too lightly and it was clear they really cared for their carapaced charges.

Around the circle was placed lettuce leaves as the goal as this was a race of quickest to the outer circle rather than a flat race. One by one the tortoise racers were introduced with a few words from their keepers. Cheers went up for them from their respective fellow college members. They are very loyal to their tortoises. However, I couldn’t help think that Magdalene’s College’s Oscar d’tortoise was a bit of a cheat being it was a student in a suit! Worcester did apparently plan to bring two Zoom and Shelly but only Shelly turned up. There was Turtellini from St Anne’s, a cute small Aristurtle from St Peters, Percy from University, Emmanuelle from Regent’s Park and getting the biggest cheer Foxe from the home college. Once they add been introduced them and their keepers stood in the middle facing outwards and as the crowd counted down let go of their tortoises and they were off. I must say they moved exceedingly quickly Cheers and come ons boomed from the excited crowd. The tortoises were literally biting at each other’s hills and at one point two grunting tortoises had to be separated. Then only minutes after the whistle was blown Shelly went over the line and the race was finished. Shelly sat chomping his lettuce. Like all racers they then stayed around for photographs and adoration. It was over for another year and as the crowd dispersed so did the fine weather….a huge rain cloud befell the tortoises who were quickly spirited away for some post race fruit no doubt.

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