Reflections on the Autumnal Equinox

So the autumnal equinox has been and gone again, reminding me that it is now just over four years since I started blogging; one of my very first posts was prompted by the Equinox in 2008. It’s also a reminder that the summer is now well and truly over, and teaching term is about to start. Some of my colleagues elsewhere have started teaching already but at Cardiff, lectures don’t start until 1st October. Next week, however, sees Freshers’ Week, and various other enrolment, registration and induction events. Many students have already arrived, if the crowds of young  bewildered people wandering around Tesco yesterday are anything to go by.

Tomorrow is our Board of Studies too, the first one I have to chair as Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of Physics and Astronomy. Most of the business is to do with tidying up loose ends of the last academic year and planning for the term to come. I’ll have to see whether I can chair it with sufficient ruthless efficiency that we don’t all end up missing lunch.

Anyway, this time of year always reminds me when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are doing now. I did it thirty years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it anyway. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, me and my luggage trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be very difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit”. Whatever that is.

Taking a taxi from Cambridge station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyen’s building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realised that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing.

After 30 years you get used to that feeling.

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6 Responses to “Reflections on the Autumnal Equinox”

  1. Michael Kenyon Says:

    A very enjoyable post that brings back a lot of memories, I do think that the experience of going to study away from home has changed slightly due to the fact that you have to pay so much now.

    I happened to be at Nottingham University the other Saturday when the open day was on and was struck by how different it was to the one I attended a long time ago. Back then it was make your own way from the railway station, neither buses laid on nor kindly helpers to assist you. Another huge difference was that everybody had at least one parent with them, probably because going to University is such a heavy financial burden for you (and your parents).

    Long gone are the days of the full grant, being able to sign on in the holidays and getting cash via a begging letter to Northumberland County Council.

    • Yes, it’s striking that almost every potential student now arrives with parents. Mine didn’t go to any interview I attended. I would have felt very uncomfortable had they insisted on coming along, but it never occurred to them that they should.

      I was very lucky financially. I got a full maintenance grant as my family was not at all well-off, but I also had a job working at British Gas for about 9 months between leaving school after the 7th term and going to Cambridge. I never faced financial hardship at all.

      It makes me sad to think that my generation has made life so much more difficult for today’s students.

  2. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Evocative stuff, Peter.

    I’m afraid my own memory of arriving in Edinburgh to start my first year in 1979 is nothing like as detailed. I’d like to believe that I too arrived by train and that it was on walking out of Waverley on that autumn day that Auld Reekie’s famous brewery breeze was imprinted on my memory forever. But in truth, I can’t be entirely sure anymore.

    One thing I do recall was feeling even more at sea than you, perhaps, because on the back of reasonable A-level results, I had chosen to go straight into second year at Edinburgh, making a three year degree of it rather than the then standard Scottish four years.

    So while everyone else pretty much knew what they were doing already, I was in at the deep end academically. Still not entirely sure whether that choice was a good one, as it left certain course options closed to me. For example, not having done first year maths, I was consigned to the middle stream second year maths course, rather than the higher one. I also took a computing course rather than mathematical physics.

    This may have saved me from becoming a theoretician though, so not a bad thing :-) Then again, the graduating cohort of five astrophysics students that I was part of also included Brian Boyle and Steve Sembay, both still in astronomy, and neither exactly what you’d call a theorist …

  3. Very vivid – and brought my own memories of being an anxious and disorientated fresher back very clearly. And no, it wouldn’t have occurred to my parents to take me either, but then I went up for my first year with just one suitcase to my name. As I remember, the grant was enough to pay the rent and eat so long as you didn’t want to be warm as well – the only time in my life when I have had chilblains. I suppose the burden of debt is one reason why students choose a local university so they can live at home, but it must diminish the intensity of the student experience, whether that’s for good or ill.

  4. It must be a generational thing, but I also headed off from home alone in 1987 to QMC in London, riding the train with nothing but my possessions on my back. I too had a full grant (and also a book grant from the KISWAS (sp?) miners fund, something for which I am very grateful). I remember having to fill in forms with my father’s salary on them, numbers that seemed large at the time, but looking back, you wonder how people survived. Simply put, without a grant, I would not have gone to uni, and I don’t know what kind of career I would have followed; at least, thanks to a particular Prime Minister, I didn’t have the option of going down the mines. They were closed soon after I left.

  5. I like the sound of the room(s). Like a lot of Irish students, I lived at home during my undergraduate course at a large college in Dublin (UCD). I was allocated rooms when I enrolled for a postgrad at Trinity, and it was only then the college experience really began.

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