Liz Hoggard: Say no to campus life out of season

If you want culture from the inside, a B&Bat Cambridge might not offer it

When news broke this weekend that Cambridge is to open its doors as a B&B establishment – to raise money – the people cheered. For the first time in Cambridge's 800-year-history, holidaymakers will be able to stay the night in Corpus Christi College, Clare, Downing, et al. Until now only conference delegates and guests of college members could book accommodation. But from Easter, it was reported, anyone will be able to sample Cambridge University life from £60 a night.

Imagine waking up to ancient courts and quiet cloisters once occupied by Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Oliver Cromwell, William Wordsworth, Stephen Hawking and Stephen Fry, runs the romantic blurb. Are they kidding?

As a teenager I spent all my summer holidays staying on university campuses. York, Exeter, Stirling, I've seen them all. Blame my cash-strapped French teacher parents, who jumped at the chance to stay somewhere inexpensive. Plus they argued it would be a marvellous way to experience culture from the inside.

So every summer we would roll up in our battered Renault, full of sleeping bags and tins of beans, and stay in modest local accomodation (yes the bloody halls of residence) at 1960s redbrick universities. Many were built like a Swedish women's open prisons, with queues for the wash blocks, and depressing refectories.

I'm sure one day they'll make a C4 film about my family. At breakfast we'd sit around the kitchen table like a parody of University Challenge (National Health glasses, bad 1970s haircuts) as my parents tried to raise our spirits with promises of improving day trips, theatre outings, and cheese and wine evenings with the local acdemics. Dream on.

The only people on campus at that time of year are janitors, depressed foreign students, and the Open University. The OU, God bless them , work incredibly hard all year long, studying on top of day jobs. So given two weeks to become a hedonistic student, they literally throw off their wedding rings, and start living it up. Very puzzling for 13-year-old girls.

A univeristy campus in August is the equivalent of Hastings in winter. Day trips tended to involve three buses (campuses are by definition miles from the centre of town). There's only so much one can can do on Dartmoor or the Yorkshire Moors. Watching one desperate farce – Dandy Dick at Exeter's campus theatre – we were the sole audience. In Stirling it rained every day. "This is the actual castle where they filmed Colditz," encouraged my father in a cagoule. You don't say.

I think my parents hoped we were getting an education in thrift. Don't believe it. These days I fritter money on five-star hotels with crisp linen and spas and valet parking. I never want to see a bunk bed again. Forget the Dreaming Spires. Or bed and breakfast with the dons. Send your kids to Eurodisney instead. They might just learn some French.

Comments