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I had the dubious pleasure of attending this pile of bricks between 1992 and 1995 GMT. I donít have a lot good to say about the place itself, in spite of the fact I made some good friends there and left with a good degree, albeit in a useless subject, from an excellent department. However I am often asked by my Kazakh students (and regularly was by my Egyptian students) where I went to university, and to be honest I think I let the bland whitewashed facade of the Lancastrian dream on the hill lead me to undervalue the importance it has played in my life.

Lancaster University is situated just outside, ironically, Lancaster in the north of England. Itís one of those late-60s British universities with about as many red bricks as William Hagueís Lego set and about the same number of admirers as the man himself. To give you an idea why, some of the halls of residence are architecturally based on Swedish prisons, emblematic of the era in which style was ignominiously ditched in favour of substance, understandable from a practical point of view but to the eye, very bland. The whole campus exudes anonymity, lacks character and many of its alumni donít know which university theyíve attended until they read it on their graduation certificate.
Yet in spite of the arrangement of uninspiring breeze blocks, the memories of the Lancaster days are tinged with more that the faint aroma of the occasional Ulverston tipple...
... and in truth, I can see now that I did have a happy time there, if only for the time I spent with people of the same opinion about the buildings.


I shouldnít neglect to mention the city itself, a 100,000 strong city worth visiting for its heritage and charm. Shopping isnít too bad there and these days at least there is an excellent food market at weekends. Nightlife is (or at least it was) good but potentially dangerous, there are strong anti-student sentiments across the local community and given that Lancaster is home to about five very very rough housing estates it pays to be careful. I understand itís got worse, which doesnít bear thinking about.

The wider context deserves a mention too, within easy reach being the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Lancashire coast, Blackpool, Manchester, Leeds and the Furness Peninsula (where Ulverston is, had to mention that one again). There is also the Lune Valley and the canal which takes you towards Manchester or towards Scotland in the other direction. Students at Lancaster often claim to have gone there to be near the lakes or the fells and spend as much time climbing or hiking etc as they do studying.
The British degree course offers the chance for variety like this, it is generally three years the first of which doesnít even count towards your final grade. Itís difficult to know whether to laugh or cry when you hear of the hours students in other countries put in, British university courses can permit huge flexibility and for the wayward or idle among us the sprinkling of optional lectures can be an excuse to stay in bed a bit longer. I made it through the first year but was grateful it had only been a dress rehearsal, Iíd have got a 2:2. My intended major was Politics but in the end I switched to Sociology because it was extremely interesting. And demanded less attendance. I failed Economics, happily, and am still proud of the hygienic distance I put between my final grade and the stinking territory located beyond the pass mark. Anything with numbers in, other than darts, is very confusing. Maybe I didnít get 35% after all, maybe it was an 8 ;)
During my second year I lived off campus with three guys Ė and for a while an Italian girl, not of my close association Ė in a house which had a few stories of its own. It was an interesting year, I discovered cycling, bar crawls by train, my first and last Crewe Alexandra season ticket. But the system in my faculty was so flexible I was able to postpone all bar one of my nine exams until my final year and consequently had ten weeks with no commitments when I finished my coursework. In spite of the debt Iíd run up I still had enough money to get by, and when not eating mountains of bean curry I was either off in some pub somewhere out of town, or long distance running with only my thoughts for company.
Year three was the best, really what the other two should have been about and I reacted positively to the fact that I had eight modules to pass in the same number of months, and got down to business. And having moved back onto campus I was surrounded by more people again so as a result I had more to occupy myself with than finding new towns to go drinking in. I still ran as much as ever, the hills behind the university remain to this day the best routes Iíve ever taken, but boozing came to a halt and I got on with my work. The people I shared a kitchen with were all first year students but they were very respectful of my need to study more, and didnít hassle me to get involved with everything. I am still grateful for this, in spite of my pig-headed unwillingness to follow the crowd I did get on well with this lot and they could have been quite a distraction.
With exams approaching any coursework safely in, I had three weeks to cram as much in as I could so took to studying until I could study no more. For possibly 20 hours a day accompanied by the instrumental album Divinities by Ian Anderson I took notes from dozens of books and copied them out again, and again, and again. When it came to exam time, I had enough to say, and got through all 8 in a few weeks without any scars, and finished with a 2:1, not by a big margin but it was good enough. Thereís only one statistic that counts, I was nowhere near a first, dangerously close to a 2:2 but on balance I deserved what I got, and it wasnít until getting it that I really appreciated all that had gone before it.
 

City centre, not the university


Itís a cliche I know, but if I had my time again...
... Iíd work harder and go to Oxford instead.