Jewel in the muck

Cathy Packe remembers her student days in Durham
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The Independent Travel
A poll of a few friends of mine showed they have widely differing memories of their first day at university. Inexplicably, I remember one phrase from the address by the Vice-Chancellor to new students. He described the city of Durham, our new home, as "a jewel in the muck-heap". Although this is rather damning of the countryside immediately around, his description of the city was an understatement.

If at all possible, Durham is best approached by rail. As you pull into the station, the view of the medieval cathedral is stunning. The cathedral can be seen from almost anywhere in the city; the uninterrupted panorama from my first college room was unblemished, as most of the new building in Durham has been on the outskirts.

The historic heart of the city is built on a peninsula, gouged out by a loop in the river Wear, and densely wooded along its banks. The river separates the old centre from the rest of the city, and keeps it aloof from modern life.

For centuries, city life revolved around Palace Green and the few cobbled streets leading from it. This is a village green on a grand scale. The cathedral and castle face each other at opposite ends; the original university library runs between them; on the fourth side is a row of alms houses now converted into a restaurant.

For most students, the cathedral is just a landmark in the city. I remember it mainly as the place to go for afternoon tea. These days there are other places to go - and no doubt prices have gone up - but when I was an undergraduate, a scone, jam, cream and a cup of tea in the cathedral's Undercroft restaurant cost 27p.

Although the bell, chiming out every 15 minutes, still regulates the pace of life in Durham, the cathedral itself no longer dominates life as it would have done in the days of Saints Bede and Cuthbert. That honour now goes to the university, which employs a large percentage of the population, and owns many of the city's oldest buildings. But town and gown are inextricably entwined: the university was founded when the bishops donated their official residence to become University College - now known to all students simply as "Castle".

Gradually, other colleges were founded, and the university is still expanding, but students remain in the castle, living at the most stylish student address in the country.

It is also a great place for entertaining. All the colleges hold an annual ball, some more formal than others. I remember the ball at the castle as the highlight of the social calendar, with champagne served in the courtyard, dinner in the great hall, and a cartoon projected on to the keep.

From Palace Green, cobbled streets tumble down and join up with The Bailey and Saddler Street, which leads into the Market Place. Many of the old houses provide student accommodation or lecture theatres; others are homes for the academic staff. I particularly remember peering every day into the study of Duncow Cottage and being amazed by the sheer number of books on the shelves, and the piles of papers on the floor.

Not all of Durham is ancient, of course. In the Sixties several new colleges were built, as well as the students' union building, Dunelm House. Events here were at the opposite end of the social scale from those in the castle. The surroundings were austere in daylight and cheerless at night - even under the flashing nights of the Friday discos. It is difficult to imagine that students still go there, as I did, for a hip night out. But maybe small groups of female undergraduates do still dance around their handbags, while spotty youths inevitably eye them up.

This area is ageing badly, with the concrete now streaked and dirty. But as a place to look out from, rather than to look at, Dunelm House is hard to beat.

Durham is a magnificent place to be a student - small enough to be manageable, but with the facilities of a larger university; and a beautiful setting in which to spend three years of one's life.

If I have a regret about my student days, it is that student life - and this probably applies anywhere - tends to be one-dimensional, which meant there was an awful lot of Durham that I missed. Given the chance to be a student again, I wouldn't hesitate to go back.