1980s York: my lost world

Simon Sapper returns to campus – it’s a world away from his York of decades past

My mother cried when I set off for the University of York. My father looked a bit pinched. It wasn‘t the place, it was the going.

I’m sure they could not have known how difficult regular contact would become as I would queue with a pile of coins cupped in both hands by the 3 pay phones after 6pm or at weekends.

Cheap rate as opposed to peak rate, you see: no mobiles, no Skype. No answering machines even. No, they couldn’t have foreseen that level of detail.

For my parents, I think it was possibly some anxiety about the unknown. Dad didn’t go to university; Mum studied in the city where she lived, looking to escape unhappy school days and a stifling home life.

But their first-born, going to the other end of the country (although as we all know York is an island of the south marooned in North Yorkshire), leaving  behind, they thought, an idyllic set-up at home? How could he? Would he be ok? Worry, worry and tears.

Students in the sun

Teenage fear – or confidence?

I just couldn’t understand this at the time. This was a big-ish deal, sure, but it was something that had been planned, talked about, I was ready and raring to go.  Hell, it was their idea for me to leave in the first place…

But maybe their fears were a little self-centred, too.

Perhaps they knew that it wouldn’t just be the longer distance that made for tenuous conversations, a more strained parental relationship. Perhaps they had a fear of being left behind or a fear of being left out?

Chances are these fears were well-founded: I didn’t give the tears much more than a passing thought. I didn’t look back. I didn’t come home. I was too youthfully arrogant. Even the predictable things that went wrong came as a surprise.

Boats on the lake

The return

Some years later, when my daughters were young we made a weekend trip to York. We wandered the walls and snickleways, did the Jorvik and embedded in their young minds that going to university was a natural, unavoidable stage in life.

Then along came the hike in student numbers and fees that made old-thinking largely redundant.

But that was before Heslington East was built. When we visited Langwith and Goodricke were still – in my mind – where they always will be.

Wikipedia says the University of York today is a ‘global powerhouse amongst academic establishments’. The York I remember – my York – had just six colleges and belonged to us, the students.

URY open day broadcasting 1989

An era lost

And delightful as it is, today’s York isn’t York any more either.

Gone are the cascades of cyclists tumbling over Skeldergate Bridge when Pilkington’s knocked off – or pouring out of the British Rail engineering works.  

Gone is the coal dust in the air as you walk from campus down Hes Road into town in winter.  No whiff of cocoa and burnt sugar when the wind blew inwards from Terry’s and Rowntrees. Flood marks and an inescapable smell of damp in the old Odeon cinema, all erased.

Bar entertainment 1980s

A new generation

Years later yet and I find myself leaving our eldest in Edinburgh. She kisses and hugs me goodbye on Waverley Steps. I am caught by surprise and have to hold back at the tears.

Watching the city disappear from the train, I feel that unique bittersweetness and finally begin to understand a bit more about both parenthood and life.

Now, with our younger daughter checking off campuses on her open-day schedule, I find myself thinking, as we wander around York-like universities such as Kent, “Yes,  I could be really happy here” –  before realising that it isn’t about me anymore, if it ever was.