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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A typical student house?

Bowsden Terrace as it is today.

Before I left for home that summer of 1958 I was lucky enough to join my friend Ken Appleby in a rented house he shared with two other students, one of whom was moving away to take up his first job. This was my first experience of living with other people - Ken, a fellow architecture student and Tony French, a Londoner, studying economics.

The property was an end-of-terrace house in Bowsden Terrace, South Gosforth. We paid rent of £3 a week to the landlord, a retired widower who lived not very far away but who had not been seen for a few years as generations of students had continued to pay the rent.

You could loosely describe the house as furnished and, needless to say, re-decoration was almost non-existent, except where various students had experimented with dubious artistic ideas.

The bathroom had been painted with pale yellow gloss, including the bath, basin and WC. It was rather the worse for wear when I arrived. The walls were decorated with erotic photographs which had been allowed to remain gathering dust over the years. It wasn't very hygienic..

Neither was the kitchen. Action Painting was all the rage at the time and as architectural students dominated the occupancy, the urge to decorate the kitchen in the manner of Jackson Pollock was too strong to resist. The general condition of the furniture left a lot to be desired and cleanliness was not high on the list of priorities. We did have a cleaning lady who came in every weekday but she wasn't able to do very much to improve things. We most probably paid her £1 a week to wash the dishes and whip round with a duster. Her name was Mrs Blacklock, although Ken insisted on calling her Mrs Backlog.

My room was on the ground floor wedged between the bathroom and a plumber's shop. I was able to hear all the comings and goings from the shop, often woken early in the morning to the clanking of copper pipes and other plumbing materials being collected for a day's work, plus a lot of choice language thrown in.

The bathroom was quite convenient but I ended up being the message boy when Ken and Tony were using the facilities - they both lived upstairs and had girlfriends who visited regularly.

My room furniture consisted of a double steel-framed bed with open springs and a thinly stuffed mattress. There were a couple of old '40s armchairs, an upright chair and a drawing table which had seen better days and had slats missing so pens and pencils constantly ran off onto the floor. There was no heating in the room apart from an open fireplace if I felt like buying in some coal - which I did on one special occasion.

Our communal living room was a hub of verbal (but not physical) activity. The focal point was a tiled fireplace and an old gas fire. Tony was the smoker but he was preceded by others who had habitually thrown their tab ends into the fireplace and stained the tiles. To the right of the fire was a cupboard crammed full of old newspapers hoarded by previous occupants and left to turn yellow. On a side wall was a rather fine roll-top desk, the only decent piece of furniture in the house. My record player was plugged into an old radio, which provided the only source of entertainment.

A large dirty sofa dominated the room from where the cigarette butts were tossed and, so I'd been told, darts thrown at the occasional mouse which might emerge from the corner cupboard...




Sunday, 28 February 2016

From Cambridge to Newcastle

After three years at Cambridge, I had to decide where to continue my studies in order to pass the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)  final examination to qualify as an architect. My tutor, Alex Hardy, had recommended the Durham University School of Architecture based in Newcastle upon Tyne (the two universities became separate entities in 1963). I had attended an interview earlier that year and was accepted to join the fourth year in Newcastle.

In the first few weeks I experienced a big change in my lifestyle. I had to live in digs in South Gosforth, a bus ride away from the university, and share a bed-sit with another chap who wasn't a student. The landlady was old and rather frail and the meals, though hot, were not particularly appetising. I was very impressed with the university itself: King's College and the central courtyard area consisted of buildings dating from the 19th century.

{I am proud to say that some twenty-odd years later I was to see my own son study at Newcastle University. To have had the opportunity to study at two universities and then have my two children attend each of them, is indeed fortunate}

The centre of Newcastle in 1957 was lively: plenty of pubs between the university precinct and the quayside. All the main streets had overhead electric power cables which had once been used to run trams but had been replaced by trolley buses. The jewels in the architectural crown were the classical streets created by architect John Dobson and builder Richard Grainger including Grey Street, Grainger Street, Market Street and Collingwood Street. This was 19th century town planning at its best, particularly the gentle sweep of Grey Street with the fa├žade of the Theatre Royal.

The accommodation for fourth year architecture studies was a temporary block to the rear of the main buildings, known as 'the huts': pre-cast concrete-framed units similar to temporary classrooms. The lack of insulation meant that as soon as the heating was turned off, they rapidly became very cold in winter. It was therefore very difficult to work late in such conditions. However the atmosphere among the students was relaxed and friendly. Of course most of them had studied together for three years already. There were only two other newcomers: Ken Appleby who was returning to Newcastle after his National Service and Ralph Baldwin who had studied part-time and was now studying full-time in order to qualify.

The winter of 1957 soon progressed into the spring and summer of 1958 so it was possible to work in the studio longer into the evenings and the temptation grew to find some open air and exercise in the day. Ralph also had some rowing experience so we went out in a pair and towards the end of the summer even entered into the Durham University regatta on the River Wear. This was my only diversion and thankfully didn't encroach on my work.

My main design project at the end of the summer term was a Civic Centre for Carlisle. I remember the final weeks before the scheme had to be submitted - we were working well into the night in the hut and I decided not to shave until it was finished. It is the only time in my life that I have grown 'designer stubble'. We were kept awake every night with two long-playing records supplied by one of the students and they are firmly embedded in my memory. One was Frank Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers and the other was one by Ella Fitzgerald. My appreciation of popular music was influenced by these two performers even though they got on my nerves that final week!

On the Saturday morning, after submitting the scheme, I headed straight for the barber's and had a wet shave and haircut before going to the student's union for a well-earned hot meal.