Michaelmas Memories

Yesterday I gave my first lecture of the new academic year. It was the first lecture of the second-year Mathematical Methods module I’ve been teaching for several years now, and was about partial differentiation. Because of the late Leaving Certificate results this year, first-year students don’t officially start until next week but we have some doing my second module and most of them actually came to my first lecture. For most of the new arrivals this week is Welcome Week, with a variety of events – both social and administrative – to help them settle into student life before they start their education proper next week.

As often seems to be the case in late September, the weather is very nice today. The Welsh phrase Haf Bach Mihangel (Michael’s Little Summer) refers to this kind of spell. St Michael is also the origin of the term Michaelmas, which is the name of the Autumn term at Cambridge University. Michaelmas Day itself is on 29th September.

This all takes me back to when I myself left home to go to University in 1982, as thousands of fledgling students are doing in their turn right now.

I started my journey by 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, we trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge. The weather, at least in my memory, was exactly like today. It suddenly struck me this week that that was 40 years ago.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey on the train, 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 that 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 immediately 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, just 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 the 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 in a strange foreign land where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing. One thing I certainly didn’t think then was that 40 years on I’d still be wondering what I’m going to do when I leave University…

8 Responses to “Michaelmas Memories”

  1. Sebastian Barton Says:

    Shocking that it is 40 years. I was probably also at the station that same day before finding my way to Corpus. The train station was always too far from the colleges for easy access for which I suffered when I walked from the station in my ill-fitting ‘lounge suit’ for interview the previous year. That was a day of Michael’s little summer!

    • Yes, Magdalene is even further from the station and I had a lot of luggage which is why I had to take a taxi. I think it was probably October rather than September as Cambridge terms start late.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Full term began on Tuesday October 5th 1982 according to my Cambridge diary. Can you remember what day of the week you travelled?

        You had a pissoir sink in a Lutyens room, congratulations! I had a battle to get one installed at that time even though I was a resident Research Fellow. The College had (and for all I know still has) an absurd system whereby Fellows’ rooms (and parking places) are allocated by seniority, without regard to who is and is not a resident Fellow. Consequently, some of its finest sets of rooms with full facilities, which at least two Fellows had left in order to marry, were used only for supervisions.

      • If I recall correctly, Freshers came a week or so before Full Term. I don’t remember what day of the week I travelled though.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Freshers were encouraged to arrive before the weekend before Full Term, but the inaugural meeting with supervisors was in the couple of days after Full Term began and before lectures began. At those meetings a weekly time for supervisions was arranged.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Wikipedia confirms what I had been told, that “The University of Cambridge helped block later 19th-century attempts to create a central station”.


      A reference is given, although not an easily accessible one. In the present century the area around the station has been hugely done up.

      • Yes, the area around the station now is very different from what it looked like when I arrived there in 1982.

        Come to think of it, my first encounter with you must have been 40 years ago too, as I was assigned to supervisions with you in my first year.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I think I supervised Part IA Maths for NatScis and Part IB Advanced Physics.

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