This train for Gradsville (part 1)

Calling at Further Study, Getajob and Finishingbutnotknowinghowtoadultgogogoch.

I’ve now finished my final year at the University of Central Lancashire, UK. I got there by a slightly unusual route; 4 years ago, I left my sixth-form college with grades of C, D and D – the former in biology, the latter 2 in physics and maths.

Needless to say, this hadn’t been part of the plan. After doing fairly well (at least in my better subjects) to a point up to and including GCSE level (up to the end of year 11, or 10th grade for any international reader who happens upon this blog), the plan was this; enter A-Level, achieve good grades in biology, physics and further maths, go through the process of shortlisting universities, pick Leicester (if they’d have me), do well there, then… well, who knows? I hadn’t yet thought beyond that point.

But obviously that didn’t happen. Instead of the As and Bs I’d been hoping for, I could only achieve Cs and Ds, and that only after ‘dropping’ from further maths to standard maths (after a regular stream of Es and Us, it was decided this would be the best path). Don’t get me wrong, I had some fantastic teachers – I just wasn’t hard-working enough to take advantage of them. A-level is a difficult time for anybody, with pressure from exams plus the emotional struggles of puberty, but I dealt with it badly. I suspect this was partly down to my then-undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, as one symptom is a more extreme emotional range. Thankfully I have this largely under control now, but as my family will attest, this was not the case during A-level.

My options were therefore rather limited when it came to universities. I wanted to go to Leicester, and had done for most of my life – they have a strong history of space science and it’s my nearest big city, so it was the obvious choice. Unfortunately, my grades were not nearly good enough, and I had to turn them down – a decision for which, rather heartbreakingly in my case, they requested a reason – whilst most of the other universities also ended up in a ‘reject’ pile, either from my side or theirs. Looking back, I was something of a lost soul, and I basically fell into doing a course at UCLan.

Not the one I’d applied for, either; my grades were so bad that I wasn’t even accepted onto the first-year programme. I had to do a foundation year. Now, I did go to an open day (with a physics talk held by Dr Don W. Kurtz who, aside from being an excellent public speaker, was extremely patient with the climate change question posted by one member of the audience) but this was only after I’d applied for UCLan. So I had better like it.

Now I’ll be honest. As my Dad drove me into Preston, I looked out the window and thought “Oh no, what have I got myself in for here?” Preston, it has to be said, is not one of the world’s richest cities. It’s no hellhole, sure, but it’s not exactly Geneva either. One of its listed buildings is a huge bus station which, in my opinion, looks awful on the outside, and worse within. At that time, there were also a number of closed shops, and (hilariously) a huge pile of dirt next to a poster persuading people to keep the place clean (they were revamping the high street at the time). I was not optimistic.

 

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But appearances can be deceptive. Preston is, in fact, a fantastic city in which to study. The university is one of the biggest in the country, with a great physics institute. The School of Physical Sciences and Computing also has some of the best educators I have ever been taught by, including (and certainly not limited to) the aforementioned Dr Kurtz. The city is well located, has some fantastic little places to eat, has plenty of clubs (for those that are into that kind of thing) and loads of potential.

The location thing is certainly handy. Want a day at the seaside? Blackpool’s nearby (I know, I know, it’s not exactly glamorous, but the promenade’s great, and a return ticket for less than a fiver isn’t to be sniffed at!). Just to the north lies the Lake District, a fantastically beautiful part of the country – despite my, let’s say, mixed history with water (fell into a pond, nearly drowned in a swimming pool, nearly cycled into a lake, capsized a canoe in a different lake) – and is well worth a visit; additionally, Lancaster is the next stop on the railway line, and is also beautiful.

Speaking of transport, Manchester and Liverpool lie just to the south; Manchester airport is just over an hour away by train, whilst Manchester itself is also a really nice city. Not that I’m bashing on Liverpool; I just haven’t been there, and I’d love to at some point. You can tell Manchester was an industrial city – the classic picture of chimneys and railway arches apply here – but it also looks really nice, as most of the buildings and structures I’ve seen were constructed from a lovely red brick.

It does, I admit, look nicer than Preston – but I imagine it gets a lot more funding. There is regeneration happening in the city, but it is slow in coming, and is preceded by a number of failed projects, and a number of museum/library closures. It is reasonably cheap, but sad to say, this is with good reason. It’s got a great heart though. I for one adore Preston, and it has been the setting of a major part of my life – not only have I gone to university here, but that action means I’ve spent over a tenth of my life here. It’s also the first time I’ve lived away from home, or indeed lived anywhere other than my current permanent residence. In Preston I live with people I’ve chosen to live with for the first time, rather than not chosen (love you family!); people who’ve grown up in different backgrounds to me, yet still share similar passions.

The weather here is a downer, for some. It is, I hear, the third wettest city in the UK (don’t quote me on that) so if you don’t like rain – and fortunately, I do – it’s not the place to be. We get a reasonable amount of wind as well, but I actually like stormy weather; the stronger the better, within reason. In fairness, it has been known to be sunny here, on occasion, and even (if we’re really lucky) quite warm!

 

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Living in Preston has also led to me following the city’s football club, Preston North End. PNE currently lie in the championship, having finally been promoted through the playoffs after losing a record 9 times out of 9 previous appearances. They are the fourth most successful English team of all time, however, and hold a number of good records (this is going to be pretty extensive, so get comfortable): largest winning margin in professional English football (beating Hyde 26-0 in the first round of the 1887-88 FA cup); most goals scored by one player in a single FA cup competition (19 by Jimmy Ross, also in 1887-88); first Football League champions (1888-89); first team to win both league and cup in the same season (1888-89); first team to go unbeaten in a season (1888-89 – take that, Arsenal!); only team to go unbeaten in the league and the cup in the same season (1888-89, not even conceding a goal in the cup – seriously, take that Arsenal!). Admittedly it has been a little downhill since then, but they’re on the way up now. The League One playoff final a few years ago was a brilliant night, even if only experienced through the BBC’s text commentary.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Sir Tom Finney at this point. The local professionally-trained plumber scored 210 goals in 473 appearances for PNE, and 30 in 76 for England – he scored on his debut for both – and has a statue of himself outside Deepdale. There are roads, pubs, sports centres named after him, and was the first player to be voted ‘Footballer of the Year’ twice – the first in 1954, and the second in 1957. In all this time he never left Preston North End. He is, it’s fair to say, celebrated here, and his death was accompanied by a full civic funeral, accompanied by thousands of people. It is a shock to me that I had never heard his name before coming here.

But back to brighter thoughts. Essentially, the point is this; it’s not necessarily a bad thing to not live according to plan. I missed out on Leicester, yes, but I’ve had fantastic teaching elsewhere; I was no longer able to see my ‘home’ friends for most of the year – but I’ve made plenty of new ones in Preston. My marks have been mostly decent, and have resulted in a 2:1 in Astrophysics, a fact that I am immensely proud of. Studying there has, for the most part, been enjoyable. It even gave me a chance to meet entomologist and occasional television presenter George McGavin, an opportunity about which I was probably more excited than would be considered reasonable!

As far as exams are concerned, I, like lots of people, didn’t enjoy doing them. Unfortunately my dyspraxia, which affects fine motor skills, means that I cannot write as quickly as other people. If I try, my handwriting deteriorates to a point that even I struggle to understand some of the shapes on the paper. Therefore, UCLan decided to even things out a little by giving me 25% extra time in exams along with amanuensis (where the invigilator could write for me if I feel my own handwriting is too difficult to read). This means that I didn’t have to rush things, although of course I had to have my own room – which means I ended up anywhere they could fit me. I’ve had exams in a meeting room, a computer lab, even someone’s office! It did however remove some of the stress that I would be feeling should I have had to rush through exam papers.

So, after 4 years of study, I have finally finished my degree, partially thanks to my own efforts and partially thanks to the help of those at UCLan along with friends and family. Obviously I had to work hard, but they all provided plenty of help and support along the way. So here’s to all of you.

 

The first three Preston photos and the first lot of Blackpool photos were all taken with the 5 megapixel camera on the back of my old phone, so apologies for the quality. All other photos were taken with the 13 megapixel camera on the back of my new phone.