Fifty years ago, when Coventry comprised more than a collection of post- war concrete bunkers, the AA Road Book described the elm-bordered highway between Kenilworth and Coventry as "the most beautiful road in Britain". When, 32 years ago, the first students rolled up in sensible Morris Minors and flashy Triumph Heralds, they steered towards a muddy field on Gibbet Hill Road, adjacent to this graceful avenue. Today, sightseers can trudge through a fresh coating of mud - building began in 1964 and has carried on continuously ever since - and see where the white heat of technology met the redbrick idealism of the Sixties.
At the original site you will find nary a red brick; this material did not arrive at the university until the late Seventies. But at the very first corner of the glum, green-and-grey concrete rectangle that made up the infant university, you happen upon a time capsule of higher education.
Walnut-effect plywood chairs sit stiffly on a thin carpet that is defiantly plain, except where the threads have been bared. Teak veneer has attached itself to any plausible flat surface but is now peeling away. The biggest chronological giveaway, though, is the tape recorder. Like Marc Bolan and Mark Two Ford Cortinas, the Akai 4000 was big in the late Sixties. Now, forlornly, the last known survivor of the reel-to-reel age perches on an inevitably teak shelf, its performance long overtaken by digital technology.
Considering most of it falls within the confines of the city of Coventry, much of Warwick University is startlingly attractive. Since its foundation on farmland in an obscure corner just inside the city limits, the campus has oozed down a gracefully wooded hillside to a mirrored brace of lakes. No trace remains of an arrow-straight concrete track that, for a couple of decades, lay across a plain meadow. In the Sixties, the literal way forward was the magnetically levitated train - and the edge of technology went cutting through Warwick's campus, courtesy of the engineering faculty.
The Maglev idea moved elsewhere (and is currently being installed, for real, between Berlin and Hamburg). To replace the track, in 1991 the university created a matching pair of artificial lakes.
This move does not represent an aesthetic victory by the art department over engineering; it reflects the fact that university managements, these market-oriented days, are more concerned with what goes on during the vacation than in term time. Conference bookings provide the funds that have kept Warwick expanding, from 300 students in 1965 to 14,000 today. Holiday-makers are welcome, too: this summer, a week of self-catering accommodation works out less than pounds 7 per person per night. But you could find yourself sharing the campus with the Rugby Football Union.
Goodness knows what these officials will make of the entrails of post- war Britain scattered across the campus. Rising like the mist from the gossiping geese at the lakeside, you bump into a scarlet metal sculpture that is pure Sixties. Like a third-year theatre studies student, the structure preens self-obsessively above a spartan swathe of paving. The space between endless ranks of halls of residence was, no doubt, ideal for Sixties "be-ins" but is no use for the Nineties new, soccer-playing, men: have you ever tried to keep goal in an impromptu game of football when one of the posts is an avant-garde question mark in half-inch steel plate?
The official motto of Warwick University is Mens agitat molem (roughly, mind influences matter), but a much better way to sum up the glorious collusion of architectural fads would be "It seemed like a good idea at the time". Stark Seventies, represented by the bare breeze block Union Building, mingles uncomfortably with Eighties extravagance and Nineties anonymity. The Sixties, meanwhile, are presently mulling the changes over a pint of M&B mild in the Airport Lounge.
The what? The Airport Lounge, a precise copy (it is alleged) of the departures hall at Birmingham airport. When the first social buildings were planned in the late Sixties, airports (even small, regional ones such as Elmdon, a dozen miles down the A45) were surfing the crests of stylistic superiority. So a go-ahead university had to have, as its main bar, an airport departure lounge.
Check in here for a journey through time, as defined by the bands that have played at Warwick. Upstairs in the examinations hall of the Rootes Building, Gary glittered while the Rubettes faded out. Across at the Westwood Site lie the origins of a legend that still circulates among university entertainments officers: at precisely the moment punk was conceived, the story goes, someone booked the Damned to support the Tremeloes. Silence was far from golden that night.
Some things never change, as witnessed by the poster in the library last week that pleaded "chromosome crisis: boys need girl/s for their Earlsdon house, pounds 25 per week" (it was not clear who was to pay whom). And the wistful visitor these days may take comfort from the fact that the prevailing dog-end in the university ashtrays is still a grizzled end of roll-up, and that graffiti in the gents have not moved on: "How many Man [-agement] Sci [-ence] graduates does it take to change a lightbulb? Two: one to mix the drinks, the other to phone the electrician."
As a holiday camp for normal people as well as students, Warwick is ideal. Tourists keen to keep costs down will also be relieved that the price of an industrial-sized pizza from Airfare, next to the Lounge, is just pounds 4, since students (and approximations thereto) need not pay VAT. Similar subsidies apply to the spectacularly well-blessed arts colony at Warwick: the red-and-breeze-block Arts Centre recently won pounds 3m of lottery cash to upgrade itself. This, you may conclude if tempted by that pounds 7-a-night offer, is like Butlins for the intelligentsia.
True, the seaside is a hundred miles in any direction; the University Seaside Society flourished in the Seventies solely by offering cut-price trips to Skegness. But, so long as you don't want to go to Warwick Castle, the surroundings comprise Britain at her most seductively picturesque.
So the undergraduate at Warwick who is about to receive a weekend visitor from home has a solution to the problem that he or she inhabits a heritage- free community. Fortunately, half the history of England - together with her finest castle - lies just down the road.
The road in question is the AA's favourite, the A429. It leads to a grand castle. But this medieval masterpiece is Kenilworth, not Warwick. Students of English or history will already be turning their back pages to find Sir Walter Scott's account of Kenilworth as they stride past the Queen and Castle (whose garden benches have, before now, been produced as evidence in unsuccessful prosecutions against skylarking Warwick students).
Instead of Scott's "gigantic porter ... appropriately armed with a heavy club spiked with steel", a couple of polite English Heritage ladies guard the gates these days. But there is no mistaking England's finest castle. Last week, as the sun plunged into the mists that protected the water meadow, momentary blushes from the tired sandstone whisper of centuries of intrigue. In medieval times, all manner of grand plans were hatched at Kenilworth - not the least of them, to build a strong and handsome castle at the heart of England. If ever ruins could be too perfect, these are: the roughest edges of the shattered towers have been smoothed by time to a gaunt serenity.
"The massive ruins of the castle," wrote Scott, "only serve to show what their splendour once was, and to impress upon the musing visitor the transitory value of human possessions and the happiness of those who enjoy a humble lot in virtuous contentment."
A humble lot in virtuous contentment: the life of a Warwick student. For a moment there last week - gazing at the proud skeleton of Kenilworth Castle, its weary walls draping into limpid meadows while a troupe of ravens whisked around lonely turrets - I wished I had studied history.
Simon Calder graduated from Warwick in mathematics in 1978, and paid pounds 2 to see the Damned supporting the Tremeloes in 1976.
The closest station to Warwick University is Coventry. Buses 12, 12A, X10 and X12 run from here to the campus. If driving, note that free parking is available after 4pm and all day at weekends.
To rent a holiday flat, call 01203 523936. A five-room flat costs pounds 255 for a week, a six-room flat pounds 275. Accommodation is available from the first week in July to the third week in September.
Warwick is featured in the Radio 4 series "The University", broadcast on Thursdays at 9.30am.
For more information on "Shakespeare Country", the organisation representing Kenilworth, Leamington, Stratford and Warwick, call 01926 404891.
Students: write your way to Australia
Whether you are floundering in the mud of Warwick or lazing on the lawns at Cambridge, you could write your way to a more exotic university city. BT Chargecard and the Independent have joined forces with Rough Guides and Campus Travel to concoct the best-ever student travel writing competition.
To enter, you need not venture any further than your own municipality, because the task is to write a Rough Guide-style account, in no more than 500 words, of the town or city where you study. Send these to the address below, and you are in the running for one of five big prizes:
5. Travel by Eurostar to Paris, and cross to the Sorbonne on the Left Bank (plus pounds 750 spending money).
4. Fly to Bologna, venue for one of the most ancient universities in Europe (plus pounds 750 spending money).
3. Take a trip to Harvard, just across the river from the New England city of Boston (plus pounds 1,000 spending money).
2. Wander over to the West Coast, and bowl up at Berkeley, on the San Francisco bay (plus pounds 1,000 spending money).
1. Surfer's Paradise may sound like an implausible place to graduate, but study's up at Bond University on the Queensland coast of Australia (plus pounds 1,500 spending money).
For guidance on styling your story, BT has set up a special helpline which you can call - at local rates - to hear top tips from Rough Guide writers. Just dial 0345 345004; if you are using a payphone, then you will find it cheaper to make the call with a BT Chargecard than by using cash. Call the freephone number on 0800 345144 to sign up - this is a free call.
Your account, which needs to be accurate and pithy, should be sent to: Write Your Way Around The World, Rough Guides, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QT, to arrive by 1 March. The results will be announced just before Easter. Ten runners-up will each receive the Rough Guide to Britain. The winners may be commissioned to work on an assignment for Rough Guides, payable at the usual rates.
1. Only students currently registered at UK universities and colleges may apply.
2. Neither employees of Newspaper Publishing, British Telecommunications plc, Campus Travel or Rough Guides, nor their relatives, may enter.
3. Winners will be notified by post by 21 March.
4. Travel arrangements will be made by Campus Travel, and will aim to match the winner's preferred dates of travel. Please note, however, that certain dates may not be available due to heavy booking.
5. The editor's decision is final. No correspondence will be entered into.
6. Usual Newspaper Publishing plc rules apply.Reuse content