19 August 2007

Harlaxton College Remembered

It doesn't seem at all like 20 years have past since my freshman year of college. On this date in 1987 I was packing my two allotted suitcases and bursting with anticipation of spending my freshman year abroad in England.

I had grown up in a small town in Northern Kentucky near Cincinnati, Ohio and I never fit in with 98% of my high school classmates. My 11th grade guidance counselor looked at me as though I sprouted horns when I clearly stated my intention of studying in England for my first year in college. "You mean, you don't want to go to UK [Univ. of Kentucky]?" he asked incredulously. A large percentage of my college-bound classmates were headed there. I was furious with him, but then I was furious and impatient with people in general in those days. So I embarked upon my own mission to find a college program where a freshman could study abroad. My mother and the Cincinnati Public Library's resources helped me in my quest. From the library I found an address for the Council on International Education Exchange. They sent me a 3/4" catalogue of study abroad programs. I narrowed it down to three programs that permitted freshman to enter their program, but one of the three leaped out at me from the page and said something like this:

Study in a stately home built in the 1830s by industrialist Gregory Gregory. Take liberal arts classes taught by British and American faculty in state rooms and live on a manor with 6.5 acre walled garden and formal gardens. . .

When I applied to the University of Evansville for admission to Harlaxton College all those years ago, I had no idea how much it would change my life. For the first time I felt like the world was huge and mine for exploration. I found my profession, art history, there influenced by one of Harlaxton's eminent faculty members, medieval scholar Lady Wedgwood [Dr. Pamela Tudor-Craig]. Even though my parents are professional artists, I had no idea that you could think, talk and write about art as a job before attending Harlaxton and sitting-in on Lady Wedgwood's amazing lectures. I also took four courses in British history and literature, and a wonderful science course on Physical Geography of Great Britain. I absorbed quietly like a little sponge and adored every minute of starring up to a ceiling of gilt Victorian grandeur or stone masonry.

And I traveled. Every weekend I went somewhere, all around the island of Great Britain, including North Wales, Edinburgh, York, Lincoln, the Cotswolds, the Lake District, and of course, many trips to London. Each semester were had two four-day long weekends for travel and so I went to the Ile de France, to Venice, to Rome, and explored the seaside town of Ramsgate where my great grandmother Anne left behind those shores for the New World.

I met some wonderful people art Harlaxton and found myself immersed in diverse cultures. It was truly an international community with students from the UK, Europe, the Middle East all blended together. I went to pubs and imbibed good British cider and bitter. I ate Indian food for the first time. I became friends with students from Chicago, rural Indiana, and Germany. I'll never forget the evening that the Turkish students invited us to share strong coffee and Turkish delight with them. I won't for get the fall evening of the Guy Fawkes Night Bonfire and an evening ramble to explore Harlaxton's creepy gatehouse. My friend AC and I explored the punk clothing stores in Nottingham and played Warhammer role-playing games in the evenings. The American students put together a haunted house for Halloween and a one-mile line of British teens were lined up to go inside (back then, haunted houses were an oddity in England). We rented costumes and enjoyed a fabulous masquerade ball in the great hall each semester.

It would be impossible for me to encompass that entire year into one short essay and do it justice, but I can only hint at the richness I learned by seeing, touching, hearing about things that were far older than any European settlement in the United States. I had such a hunger for anything antique or ancient. The tangible contact with all that history changed me. It grounded my future and raised my awareness to things beyond the tiny, provincial community where I had lived most of my then 18 years.

Now sitting here twenty years later it is difficult for me to separate the strands of my life that were affected by this grand tour experiment of mine in my freshman year. I would be a different person now, if not for Harlaxton. I would venture to guess I am a more interesting and better education person for having been there, too.


  1. Wow. You make me feel so old.

    Below is my full journal entry from September 1, 1987, which is the first time I see you mentioned in my journal.

    Tuesday 1 September 1987

    I didn’t go in to Nottingham today after all. Instead, after buying books (£14), Kim, Stacey and I took the van into Grantham. Our first stop was to the bank so we could get money. Stacey and Kim went to Lloyd’s, but I went to Barclay’s and managed to get a much better rate of exchange than they did. Across from Barclay’s, which is located on the corner of Guildhall and St. Peter’s Hill/High Street, is a W.H. Smith Bookseller. We went there to buy some maps of England to hang on our walls back at the manor. From there, we went to the post office, which is down at the other end of St. Peter’s Hill, past the Isaac Newton Shopping Centre. Backtracking once again, we bumped into Hillary Brown, Mary Schletzsle, Laura Locke, Cathy, Mars, and Jan Storey. We said “hi” and took a picture before we continued on to Catlin’s for lunch.

    Malcolm Knapp had pointed out Catlin’s to us on our walking tour of the city. He commented that they had wonderful gingerbread made from a recipe invented in 1740. Grantham gingerbread arose as a result of a “mistake,” an event that seemingly occurs all too often in the invention of our sweets and puddings. This time the local baker was making Grantham Whetstones, a flat hard biscuit; he mistook one ingredient for another and the result became Grantham Gingerbread. A hard, pale dome-top biscuit. Their gingerbread is lighter in color and sharper in taste than normal gingerbread. The recipe calls for sugar, flour, egg white, ground ginger and bicarbonate of ammonia (this was in the days before baking powder was invented). We went upstairs and ordered lunch. Each of us got Chicken Maryland, tea for three and dessert. When the tea came, there were sugar cubes on the table and a bowl of white granules. We each took from the bowl before realizing that it must be salt as there was pepper on the table but no salt shaker. Kim and Stacey made the discovery by drinking their tea. I was spared that shock and chose to believe them when they said tea with salt tastes terrible. We managed to get some more hot water, and I’m sure the waitress had a good laugh on our account. I know we did. When the meal came, it was a fried beast of chicken with banana fritters, corn omelettes, fried potatoes, baked tomato, cooked carrots and peas. It was really good, and, as you can imagine, quite filling. I ate everything except the tomato. The desserts were pastries filled with a rather bland cream, which, I’m afraid is typical of the English. They do not seem to use much sugar or other sweeteners when making desserts. Our meals cost each of us £4.23.

    After lunch, we stopped in at the bakery on the first floor of Catlin’s. I bought a piece of gingerbread to share with Kim and Stacey. I also brought a loaf of French bread to munch on later. We continued our excursion through Grantham by going into a number of stores, most of which I found rather boring, before we caught the minibus back to the manor.

    Once at Harlaxton, we registered with the police in the Schroeder Lounge, something everyone had to do as foreign nationals living for an extended period in England, and separated. I went down to the sports hall to see if they had any fencing equipment. Richard found the stuff for me and we went through what they had. A left-handed foil, a broken right handed foil, a small woman’s jacket, a practice jacket, a couple of small masks, and two gloves, one right-handed, one left-handed. He is going to try to get more equipment, if possible, although he said it didn’t look good. There are three other people who fence at Harlaxton: Scot Lenyo, Baris, and Maria Day. Richard allowed me to take some of the equipment, so I changed the grip on the good foil to the Right handed grip, grabbed the right-handed glove, the practice jacket and a mask. I figure the West Lawn will make a good place to practice. I went out there and practiced for about half-an-hour before going to dinner.

    During dinner, I spoke to Dr. Elmer and he’s going to see if he can find somebody to help me learn to read Anglo-Saxon. After dinner was an orientation meeting which was followed to a trip to the Bistro with Jeanne, Ann, Kim, and Stacey. I ordered wine and while I drank it, Sam came up to us. We talked and he mentioned a “secret tunnel,” actually a storage space, behind the Bistro. I left my wine on the table and the two of us went back into the tunnel. Sam explained it is used for the haunted house each year and there is a lot of stuff left over from last year’s haunted house. Walking along, we discovered a small reservoir of water that Sam didn’t know about. We found a stick and tested the water. We figured it must be about five feet deep. The surface is very smooth, as the pool is pretty much stagnant. There is a slow drip of water into it and a flashlight reflects off the surface. At the end of the tunnel is a door leading off into the Auto Courtyard, just below the Pegasus Courtyard. We made our way back to the Bistro, where I found I had been deserted, so I finished my wine and left.

    At the bottom of the staircase, I bumped into Lena Dowers and Maria Day, two freshmen. We talked for about two hours before I left them to go down to Dave and Dirk’s room to meet "Prince Charles."

    When they were in Grantham earlier, Dave and Dirk saw a rabbit in the window of a pet shop on Butcher’s Row. They went in and bought it for £1, spending another couple of pounds for a cage. They stopped in at The Pizza Place and one of the girls there named the rabbit "Prince Charles." Dave and Dirk took a cab back to the manor and set Chuck up in their room. We decided to plan a low-key coming out party for the rabbit the next evening and make it a formal event. I was planning, once again, to go into Nottingham with Martin and Susan, so Dave and Dirk were going to go into town and pick up some wine and cheese. The loaf of French bread I had picked up earlier would also be donated to the cause. In the meantime, we set about making invitations to the party and came up with a list of people to invite: Martin, Susan, Ricke, Ann, Kim, Stacey, Jeanne, Laurine, Rebecca, and Liz Ford.

  2. So good to hear from you! Thank you for presenting your account of those early days at Harlaxton.

    Wow! All of the details you mention brought back a flood of memories. "Prince Charles!" LOL I'd totally forgotten that.

    I still have a VHS copy of that wonderful Harlaxton video you directed.

    Did you ever learn to read Anglo-Saxon? My husband is an armchair scholar of Icelandic, Saxon and Celtic folklore and history, even though he must read everything in translation. Me, my interests along folkloric lines lie mostly in Celtic tales.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing these memories. Another friend of mine posed the question on his blog about our most memorable school year beginnings, and this ties right in. Twenty years ago I was getting back from a month in Germany and diving into college almost immediately. What a disorienting experience. Even worse, I was supposed to go to Indiana, but my late arrival messed up my schedule and housing. After just 2 days, my dad did something very unusual -- he told me to come home, essentially to get my bearings. I had also been accepted to Xavier, so I went there instead, and it turned out to be a very beneficial change of plan. I got a liberal arts education that I still draw on regularly.

  4. Natalie,

    Something very similar to what you describe happened to you in 1987, happened to me one year later. I came back from England intending to begin studying commercial photography at Brooks Insititute in Santa Barbara in July 1988. I went out there, my parents helped me to buy a car, find a rented room in a house and then I started classes.

    After one week I called my mother and begged to come home. I despised Brooks Insitute's indoctrination methods and felt way in over my head. It wasn't suitable for an 18 year old mid-westerner. Not only that but I disliked living in Santa Barbara. Too many cars, too many people and I didn't know anyone. I was so terribly lonely in that very beautiful city. So my Mom came out to rescue me. I packed my bags again, but the car on a car-carrier truck bound for Cincinnati, just let the third row ticket to the Brian Ferry concert go unused and came home very with my head sunk low.

    But I had a much more rewarding education at the local arts college in Cincinnati than I would have at Brooks. It was a very good fit for me and now I'm not sorry--even though I've spent the last seven years of my life trying to save money so I can someday live in costal California again. But this time I won't be alone. Not if MS has anything to say about it.