You don’t have to go far to spot under the careful eye of its mother, a fledgling fresher steering a shopping trolley loaded with essentials for their first term in Uni. This always makes me smile with nostalgia. At this time of year I always have a hankering to take a trip to Egham, Surrey to wander through my old University campus, Royal Holloway. In my opinion, these are the best days of your life – not school days!! Treasured memories flicker - how I was held in awe of the scale and magnificence of Founder’s Building, a poster of which caught my eye in the school library, “WOW just imagine studying there!" I thought. Inspired by this incredible architecture on the edge of Windsor Great Park, I focused on turning it into a reality. I thought to myself, “Right – if I am going to Uni (previously I wasn’t sure at all..), then that’s where I’m going to go…now I just have to choose a course!” An obvious choice at the time was just to continue with the subject I was best at and enjoyed….this happened to be French…and pourquoi pas? And so that was it, UCAS form completed, my first choice my only choice! If it was meant to be, we'd soon see... but I still worked hard to achieve the BCD grades they offered me (oh those were the days!). One thing I’m certain of now is that school leavers of today are unlikely to make such a key decision in such a blazé, spontaneous and yet laissez-faire fashion when the price tag of three years at University comes in at around £50k.
The reality of my first foray into Halls wasn’t quite so romantic as the image that had inspired me - my room resembled something from prisoner cell block H with bare breeze block walls – (swiftly covered in glossy posters of John Taylor from Duran Duran, family pics, timetables, reading lists and post-cards), and one shower and toilet shared between five rooms. After the first few weeks of lectures, tutorials and seminars on Balzaac, Camus and Montaigne, and a few corridor chats with lovely Lorraine a couple of rooms down, I realised that the huge literary focus of my French degree wasn’t quite floating my bâteau. I wanted to explore a combined joint honours degree of French with Psychology. This line of enquiry was quickly extinguished when I learned that a pre-requisite for psychology was an A Level in one of the sciences. Merde!! So I had to knuckle down with getting through my reading list and choose a subsidiary subject to break up the monotony of existentialism and renaissance philosophy. Italian caught my fancy and that was that - I threw myself into trying to be linguist and planned my six-week inter-railing trip that summer exploring as much of Italy and France as my meagre budget would allow.
Other fond memories include the fun of both ladies and mixed hockey, lunch and beers in the Happy Man Pub on a Saturday after a match and rainy Sundays spent deep in the wonderful old library in Founder’s, with its creaking floorboards, large leather-topped tables, and piping hot radiators that created a soporific cosiness that almost always triggered a 20 minute nap before starting the next essay. The night of the 15th October 1987 (when Britain’s worst storm hit) I recall cowering in my single bed in my bed-sit, thinking that the window was going to come in. The next morning, enormous trees littered the A30 like matchsticks – I couldn’t believe my eyes.
In my 3rd year I boarded in a top floor flat in a boarding school deep in the Loire region where as the English 'Assistante’ I did my best to teach English to French teenagers. They had different ideas, believing my primary raison d’être was to be the butt of their adolescent jokes. It put me off teaching for life, but laid the foundations for a deep respect of anyone who can control a classroom of teenagers. I got to learn to ice-skate at breakneck speed; went to the cinema twice a week for a year (there wasn’t loads to do in this old textile town); spent six weeks in the French Alps learning to ski; met my future husband in a ski bubble, and before I knew it I was back in Egham for my final year.
Looking again at this incredible photograph that still holds me in awe today, I wonder how different my impulses and decisions would be if I was 18 today……. would I meander so haphazardly into a languages degree on the strength of the romantic allure of a faux-French Chateau? Did following my heart serve me well in the fullness of time? Would I consider the same pathway a good return on investment today or would the choice of an apprenticeship offer better options for a career in Human Resources. Have you stopped to think about how your decisions of yesteryear stand up today?