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A day in the life: Porters’ Lodge

Our College Recorder spends a day in the Porters’ Lodge.

What is a porter’s most important skill? Ask the team at Pembroke and the answer is unanimous: animal instinct. At various points during my day in the lodge I am told that a porter needs the eyes of a hawk, the skin of a rhino and the memory of an elephant. One porter is compared to a shape-shifting bear: a cuddly koala that turns grizzly when angry. Another tells me that he tries to be like a swan, giving the appearance that everything is calm while his legs paddle furiously under the water.

Pembroke’s porters’ lodge is inhabited by a menagerie of ten, each working a variety of day, night and weekend shifts to keep the College manned twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty four days per year. They have come from a surprising range of professions. As well as those from the military, there is a former policeman, a loss prevention officer, an aviation specialist, an accountant and an engineer who used to fix Cadbury’s vending machines.

The majority are men who ‘have plenty of life experience’ (rough translation: are over 45 years old), although there are exceptions. Martyn, the youngest porter, recently joined the team and Sarah is Pembroke’s first fully-fledged female porter.

A porter’s working day begins at 5.30am and builds up to the first rush, which comes at around 10am. That’s when the couriers start arriving. Amazon alone can bring up to 50 parcels each day, a figure that has dramatically increased since they started offering one-day delivery for students. The lodge begins to fill up with boxes and packages; they form towering piles in the cupboards, on the floor and in the entrance way.

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Once the deliveries are sorted, there are phone calls to answer, guest rooms to be booked and staff coming in to check for post. People continually visit to ask for details of events in the College, giving only the sketchiest information. ‘Where is that event with the Russian person?’ ‘I’m here for a supervision, but I don’t know where it is or who it’s with.’ ‘I am looking for someone whose name I have forgotten.’

There is also a steady stream of students who have locked themselves out and come in to ask for a spare key. The lodge is lined with cabinets of thousands of keys. There are programmed swipecards and ancient mortice keys, master keys, spares and spare spares. Memorising the location of each one seems like an impossible task, but more often than not a porter can lay his hands on the right key within seconds.

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At 11.04am a student comes running in with no shoes, breathlessly asking: ‘Has he come yet?’ She is here to hand in an essay that was due at 11am. She’s in luck – her supervisor has not yet arrived to collect the work – and she leaves with a smile on her face. Another student wants to borrow a trolley to move an enormous drum across town. A bunch of international students arrive giggling to purchase gowns and hoodies.

Deputy Head Porter Chris disappears and five minutes later is back clutching a warm sausage roll and a box of Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies, which he claims are the ‘staple diet’ of a Pembroke porter. Just as everyone prepares to sink their teeth into the inches of sticky dough, the fire alarm panel starts bleeping and the cakes are forgotten. Chris takes this aspect of his job very seriously: ‘For us, safety and security has to come over and above everything else.’

Taxis need to be ordered, people come in searching for lost property and the franking machine is constantly busy. An alarm sounds and the panel indicates that there is a security breach in the Chapel. A supplier arrives with an enormous computer screen. There are more visitors, more phone calls and a seemingly endless flow of post.

A glance at the CCTV shows some creative parking going on in the back car park. ‘We get to see all sorts on here,’ one of the porters jokes. ‘We’ve had people drive off the raised ramp and had to have their car lifted back on. We’ve had people reversing into barriers and into each other. Maybe we should start compiling a DVD and selling it for Christmas.’

People come in to ask for staples, plasters and even a hose. During any given day, people might request for bike locks to be unfrozen, adapter plugs to be altered or broken mugs to be glued back together.

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By midnight things quieten down and, after a final walk around, it is time for bed. But, as Martyn assures me, ‘Anything can happen overnight. On my first ever night shift I was woken up by someone banging on the door. When I opened it, it was a student who just said: “I think I’ve killed a fresher.”’ There have also been tearful students, medical emergencies, microwaves billowing black smoke and the predictable range of drunken antics.

Chris says: ‘We have surprisingly little trouble with the students. The biggest fuel is alcohol, but mainly it just causes silliness. You have to remember that this is their first time living away from their parents so some of them are bound to be daft. But a quick word from the Senior Tutor is normally enough to set them straight.’

Dealing with students is a significant part of a porter’s role. One porter confesses: ‘While they are here, I see myself as a surrogate parent.’ Parents do sometimes look to the porters for help. Not long ago, a worried mother phoned to express her concern that her daughter was staying in the library too late working. The porters chose not to divulge the fact that when she did finally leave the library, she’d head out clubbing until the early hours.

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By the end of the day, I’m beginning to think that more important than animal instinct is a sense of humour. The porters have a comedic comeback for everything, more often than not laced with biting sarcasm. Visitor: ‘Do you know where the Old Library is?’ Porter: ‘Yes, thanks.’ Student: ‘I wonder what’s in my parcel?’ Porter: ‘I know an easy way for you to find out.’ Tourist: ‘My map says the library is over on the far side of the lawn?’ Porter: ‘Well I don’t think we’ve moved it recently.’

It brings an element of comedy to a job that requires you to be, by turns, a postman, a hotel receptionist, a switchboard operator, a counsellor and a bouncer. Chris says: ‘We often get people coming in saying, “There are lots of you in here today.” But we need lots of us given the amount of things we have to deal with!’

Despite their jovial complaining the porters all seem genuinely to love their jobs. Martyn, who used to work as a courier, concludes: ‘I used to come to Pembroke to drop off parcels and I always thought I’d like to work here. Now I do, every day is different and I can honestly say I’m living the dream.’

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