In the Beginning...

In the Beginning... - Vic Seddon recently pictured in India

In the run up to the 50th anniversary of the University weekend in September 2014, Vic Seddon (Economics, 1967, Cartmel) reflects on his time at Lancaster in those fledgling years.

Those of us who arrived at Lancaster University late in September 1964 knew that we were embarking on a rare and special journey; almost an experiment, it felt like. We were an unusual bunch for those times.

What am I saying?  In retrospect, we were weird.  As I recall, the average age was higher than 18 years (I was 19); there was a high proportion of state school and FE college students, including me. Almost everyone was up for new societies and creating traditions and pushing back the boundaries of the mid-60s freedoms.

It’s worth remembering that only about 3% of our national age group attended university at that time and we numbered perhaps 320 in the total intake.  More or less, everyone knew everyone else.  Some weeks before the first day at University, we were invited in smallish groups to a venue in Meeting House Lane, near to the station, to hear Professor Stan Sturmey and someone else deliver an “inspirational speech” about university life and some admin matters.  I remember it especially because it was the first time I drove my Dad’s car without his being there and I scraped it along the gatepost at the car park.  But it is true: we did feel privileged to be attending any university and the spirit of Lancaster was attractive from the first contact.

The first two years in St Leonardsgate were formative.  Postgrads had been there already for a year when we undergrads arrived.  The Waring & Gillow building housed the library and study-carrels, cafeteria, some tutorial rooms, academic staff rooms and the admin suite.  Further down the road was the Student Union; was it called Centenary House?  Also in that row were the bookshop and the Shakespeare pub. The Grand Theatre on the opposite side was where most largish lectures seemed to be timed.  I remember lectures on February mornings, before any heating had time to work taking notes with gloves, scarf and a duffle coat (remember them?)

There was some organisational weirdness at Lancaster as well. For example, we all wore grey gowns with red yoke at lectures in the first year or two and we wandered about the city dressed in our gowns, much to the amusement of locals.  But other aspects of the eccentricity were attractive and helpful.  If I walked past Stan Sturmey’s door and it was open late in the day, I could lean on the door frame and chat with him about recent lectures and relevant headlines from the newspapers.  He was a world authority on transport economics, but more approachable than any teacher or lecturer I had known at school or college and he was not alone in this.  The VC, Charles Carter, was just as approachable.  I met him at various social events and we chatted like old friends, not at all as I expected and with no sign of the age or status-differences between us.  The same was true of the University Secretary, Mr A Stephen Jeffreys; there was no problem speaking with him professionally or socially, regardless of his exalted status.

That atmosphere was inspirational, just as much as any tuition.  There was real camaraderie, in the true sense of the word.  I’ve worked in six other universities over the years, but early Lancaster was unique in all these respects.

For our final year, we moved to Bailrigg.  Some of the facilities were improved, but it was a building site.  There was mud everywhere and we took lectures in wellington boots.  The bus underpass filled up with rainwater regularly because the drains or the pumps didn’t work.  One morning, a big glass window in the new library was broken by the force of the wind straight off Morecambe Bay.  I had a battered old car which the wind and rain seemed to blow under the bonnet frequently in the winter, so I had to push it to the roundabout and bump-start down the hill to the A6.  Which didn’t always work, of course.

Opening a new university in the mid-60s was certain to cause a stir.  Almost everything about young adult behaviour and expectations was different.  The music, the sexual mores, even the modes of dress.  Just five years earlier, and all these would have been different.  We had Radio Caroline for almost exactly the duration of my undergraduate life, pirate-broadcasting from the Irish Sea.

The previous generation, my parents certainly, thought all this was regrettable and reprehensible; so we (meaning I) learned to be secretive.  Today, that seems to be the normal relationship between parents and their children at university but it was novel and naughty back then.

Aspects of everyday survival were interesting.  None of the original cohort lived in student halls.  We were in lodgings, shared rooms, holiday boarding houses  and a few self-contained flats.  The most popular lunch in the cafeteria was soup and fruit yoghurt with a bread roll.  Fruit yoghurt was new on the market and was regarded as “real cool”; literally of course, since it was chilled!

Out in the city, there was a Chinese restaurant in Church Street where you could get the set lunch for 4s 6d (22½ pence now.)  Up near the castle was the Portofino Italian restaurant for special occasions.  An evening meal there with wine could cost all of £5 - more than a week’s rent.

Many, maybe most, students received a local authority support grant then, in addition to payment of our fees.  My grant was typical at £300 a year, so I worked on Christmas postal deliveries and a variety of summer jobs to sustain a decent level of expenditure. 

I remember with affection and admiration so many academics who all shared a humane, helpful and caring approach to our learning as well as their own scholarship:

Professors Stan Sturmey and Pat Rivett,  Dr (later Professor) Ralph Henstock, Paul Herrington, David Pearce, Alan Airth, Tony Cramp, Marcus Merriman and Austin Woolrych,  the first Professor of History.  It was contact with his History Department that helped me reassess King John, Richard III and Oliver Cromwell as probably the good guys.

I’ve been grateful to Lancaster University all my career and adult life; for its unusual and sophisticated approach to learning, to research and to the important job of getting along with people.  I’ve not come across another institution like it.  It nurtured this bright, but blundering youth and helped me develop my own approach to scholarship, teaching and management; and that’s given me status as well as pleasure that has lasted a lifetime.