My first visit to UEA was in 1966 when I was considering my options for applying to University. I went from school to the University in Earlham to explore the possibility of studying for a Fine Art degree there. The University consisted of a number of very temporary buildings in what is known as the University Village, on the corner of Wilberforce and Earlham Roads. The only permanent building used by the University was the 17th century Earlham Hall; the ziggurats of Denis Lasdun were still being built and the rest of the campus was also just a building site. The University Broad did not exist and the SAINSBURY CENTRE had not even been dreamt of.
On that occasion my visit to the University was not a great success; it was just three years old and the lecturer I saw was rather non-plussed by my presence. ‘I can’t show you anything,’ he said. The whole of the course material consisted of colour slides of artworks, and although he could show me the cupboard where the slides were held he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) show me the actual pictures; that was it as far as my introduction to academia was concerned. There must have been some books, but he didn’t mention them. There was no library to speak of, no common room (as far as I was aware); nothing. I left and spent the day at my father’s business premises at 29 Surrey Street where there was rather more to do and certainly more intellectual stimulation. Needless to say it was not one of the universities on my UCCA application form in 1967.
Rapidly over the next ten or twelve years the university took shape. The Broad was dug out to provide the gravel for the huge concrete buildings which appeared. Once a bridge was constructed over the river Yare I could take my dog down from Colney Lane and round the lake. The fields were all open grassland between the broad in the valley and Colney Lane on the hill and I used to walk Fido regularly across the open ground; the trees have grown up in the last forty years. A grocery shop and a bookshop in the University Square were built, and a large library was established where you can look out of the windows to the Broad as you read.
During the late 1970s/early 1980s I was a regular visitor to the afternoon recitals given in one of the lecture halls. These were of very modern music; being a double bass player myself I particularly remember a concert given by the bassist Barry Guy. It is a great shame that the University has decided to close its Music Faculty, as this had been one of the best parts of the institution since it started.
On the 20th of May 1982 I was invited to a sherry party in the Senior Common Room as guest of Margaret Mutch, a violinist originally from Cambridge who played in an orchestra with me. We heard a talk on “Regional Arts: who needs subsidies?” The speakers were Professor James McFarlane of UEA and C. V. R. Roberts, at that time the Arts Editor of the Eastern Daily Press. More to the point, the Senior Common Room invited us all to a buffet meal. “The meal at the UEA was very delicious; fish, paté, salad, wine. The discussion was quite lively too” as I noted at the time.
I became busy with other things, and the UEA took a back seat in the 1990s but in 2004 I was invited by my friend Rex Hancy to accompany him to the launch of the book Medieval Norwich edited by the historians Carole Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson of the UEA. This was held in the branch of Waterstones bookshop on the campus. I got chatting to a young man who had written one of the final chapters of the book. I later read this essay and thought it a dreadful bit of writing. I see he is now a professor at UEA.
Once I had begun my researches on King Edmund of East Anglia I spent many useful hours in the university library using their fine collection of books; it is a phenomenal improvement on the meagre resources that I encountered in 1966. They have many of the history books which used to belong to the late R. W. Ketton Cremer of Felbrigg Hall for instance; he was still alive when I first went to UEA. Incidentally the three crowns on the UEA Shield of Arms represent St Edmund’s sovereignty, martyrdom and innocence. I wonder how many UEA historians know that!
My sister Tiggie was not very impressed by UEA from the earliest days, when she wrote to the first Vice-Chancellor (Frank Thistlethwaite) on some matter and received a hand-written reply in an elegant hand with a prominent spelling mistake! Personally I know how easy such mistakes are, and if his correspondence had been typed for him he could always have blamed any errors on his typist. This was not an option for Thistlethwaite, and his lack of a typist shows what a shoe-string the university used to be run on. Incidentally, the coming of the personal computer has, among many other things, banished the ideas of typewriters and typists to the distant past. With spell-checkers there is also now no excuse for spelling mistakes, though they still creep in. At least in Frank Thistlethwaite’s case he had the courtesy to reply to my sister; in these days of emails and instant communication it is difficult to get any reply at all.
The whole of UEA has been created during my lifetime (and I am not incredibly ancient, indeed I have only recently reached the official retirement age). When I first remember Earlham Hall the site of the university campus was a golf course and Earlham Hall itself was the local Junior School. In fact it was attended by Molly my wife. Two peacocks wandered round the courtyard and my wife even remembers their names; Billy and Biddy, descendants the birds that roamed the grounds when the Gurneys (the Quaker banking family) lived there. Looking back it seems like another age, which it was. But what glorious surroundings in which to start your education! The school may have turned into the university but the peacocks that survived two World Wars have gone many years ago.
[There were still peacocks there in 1983 because a note in my diary states that I saw them after taking my dog for a run down to the river at Earlham.]