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Fifty years of memories – Congregation 1970

Angela Braga (nee Hall), St Mary’s College

The view from Durham station is surely one of the finest in the world, and arriving there for my interview as a nervous 17 year old, I was blown away.  I knew I had found my place. 

I loved it all: the trunks being sent on ahead by rail, two weeks before term: the cosy girls’ boarding school environment of Mary’s with doors locked at 12 by Laurie the caretaker,  all men of course to be OUT by then; the novelty of being called ‘Miss Hall’ by eminent professors in tutorial sessions; the romance of Prebends Bridge, with the cathedral looming  massively overhead;  the constant dressing-up for formals, informals, sherry parties (would any modern student regard six sherry glasses as being essential uni equipment?); the gowns, the Latin grace, which as Deputy Senior Woman in my final year I was often responsible for saying ; the police box in the market place with the white-gloved policeman directing the traffic; the modern concrete span of Kingsgate and Dunelm House contrasting with the wonderful old architecture of Palace Green and Old Elvet.  And on, and on….

All seemed set fair, but a few weeks into term my life was turned upside down.  My father, on the family’s first weekend visit to Durham, suffered a stroke and died in Dryburn Hospital.  It was devastating.  But although I had been a student for only a month or so, the College community was incredibly supportive.   In particular Mary Holdsworth,  then Principal of Mary’s, took me under her wing and kept a close eye on me until I found my feet again.  I will always be grateful.

As one door closes, another opens.  The week after my dad’s death, I met my future husband Paul, a Hatfield Modern Languages student just back from his year abroad.  Reader, I married him, during the summer of my graduation year, and thus we will be celebrating our Golden Wedding in 2020.

I  want to end this ramble by remembering three much-loved friends, all St Mary’s and all reading English, who are no longer with us:  Tessa Cullen, née Wall;  Liz Foster, née Whitaker;  and Mary Wise, née Smith.   They too belong to the class of 1970.


Philip Sergeant, University College

I graduated from University College Durham in 1970, having studied Geography.
It was a very proud moment for me as I had some very important family alongside me for the great day. As the youngest of 6 children I was fortunate to have with me 3 Durham Graduates.

My father graduated in the 1930’s having studied Maths at Hatfield College. My Sister Pat who graduated with Honours from Kings College in 1961 studying Classics. My brother Rick who also studied at Kings College gaining an Honours degree in French and Spanish. (Kings College is now Newcastle University.)

Last but not least was my wife to be, Sylvia, who was already teaching when I graduated. Also there was my Junior School teacher and her husband, my senior school Maths teacher whose son John Holme gained a First in Geography that year. 

To finish off I have returned to Durham again for my daughter Elizabeth’s graduation in the Castle with a 2:1 Honours in Biology from Trevelyan. I have been back since and stayed in the Castle, I am really looking forward to the day as I regard Durham as the place that helped define my later life.

Margaret Elphinstone, St Mary’s College

At my interview for Durham I was asked about Browning, whose poems we were studying for A level. I said he was all very well, but Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote better sonnets and always had to look up the trains when he was being hopeless. I wonder if that was why I was offered a place. I fell in love with Durham when I walked across Prebends Bridge for the first time, pausing to read the Scott quatrain, now forever engraved upon my memory, and up to Palace Green. Later I did that walk almost every day, going from Mary’s up to the library. It was my preferred way of getting to the English Department, then housed uninspiringly in Elvet Riverside. In some ways Durham abetted me in never quite entering the modern world, though in 1968 I did take part in my first political protests, a life-long habit into which I have recently relapsed.

The combination of the ever-present past in Durham and ancient Northumbria, and the chance to read widely and avidly for three years, is what truly educated me. Highlights of formal study were Professor Dorsch’s Shakespeare class, a special option on W.B. Yeats, and yes, all that Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time. 

Some years later I became a writer myself. My earliest novels are set in a possible future which now appears alarmingly prophetic. Most of my work has been historical. Eight years in Shetland  were the catalyst for two Norse novels, a spell in Michigan produced a novel set in the 1812 war, and a passion for islands, lighthouses and Atlantic history informed the rest. My latest novel, set on the Argyll coast 8000 years ago, has brought me circling back to the environmental themes of the early books. There has always been the day job too: gardener, home help, library assistant, academic. I ended up as Professor of Writing at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, but since I retired from paid work it’s back to gardening, which (unlike academia, sad to say) gives me time to think, and to cultivate some new varieties of writing.

All this aside, the central theme of the past 50 years has been my family and my friends. I look at the photo of myself at my Graduation in 1970, with my parents standing one on either side of me. At 21 that seemed like a steady state: mortality was still merely a concept. If anyone takes a photo in 2020, it will be of myself and my partner Mike, but implicit in that would be our respective descendants, all 13 of them. One thing I have learned in 50 years is that while the personnel change almost entirely, family and friends are the constant, sine qua non.

So many happy memories and celebrations!

Angela Braga, Philip Sergeant and Margaret Elhpinstone