Falmer train station, University of Sussex

University of Sussex, Then and Now

By then, I mean 1982–1983, when I was an exchange student from Georgetown University to the University of Sussex in southeast England, near Brighton; and 1985, when I made a brief visit as part of a work trip.  And now means April 2014.

I never thought I would be away from England for nearly thirty years.

When I arrived on campus in mid-April, I was expecting to see the campus and say, “Well, I remember that and that and THAT!” I was startled by how unfamiliar it seemed.

Tuesday afternoon I took a self-guided tour, using an mp3 file that I downloaded from the university website. (It is located on the University of Sussex website under Study with Us and then Visit Us.) You can also download a map, but it was difficult to read on my computer, let alone on a phone. On Thursday I was able to get a map from the receptionist at Sussex House, which helped quite a bit, and I spent most of the day wandering around campus.

I walked out of the station at Falmer (the town where Sussex is located), thinking that it used to have a door to the outside world because once when I was coming back with friends, I held the door for someone and then thanked her. My friends all laughed at my manners overdrive. Here is the front of the station today.

The campus is pretty much a straight shot north of the station, and is now surrounded by South Downs National Park (established in 2010). I didn’t realize when I was there what a long, narrow campus it is.

I doubt the underpass has changed much, except perhaps to expand as the A27 widened, or the sign along the path, or Falmer House, with its open courtyard.

I wandered inside the building, the home of the Student Union, and opened the door to Falmer Bar. It was busy that late in the afternoon, and I was getting tired of sitting in bars and restaurants by myself. I didn’t go in, but I was gratified that a dim memory surfaced.

Beyond Falmer House and off to the right is the Meeting House, a round building with stained-glass windows. I know I attended at least one nondenominational service there.

Next is Library Square, the scene of much to-ing and fro-ing and frisbee throwing, then and now. I walked into the library and then realized that the students had to tap their cards to get in, so I explained myself to the man at the desk and he let me in. I wandered through the stacks and up and down the stairs, wondering why I didn’t remember this building at all. I knew the banks of computers weren’t there thirty years ago, but nothing else seemed  familiar. Did I spend all my time studying in my flat? I still remember my flatmates going to the campus radio station on a Friday night and playing “19th Nervous Breakdown” for me because they thought I didn’t know how to have fun. And with all that, I still didn’t make it all the way through Ulysses.

The Arts buildings ascend from the north side of Library Square and form a kind of backward S. I wonder if that’s where I took my English novel and Shakespeare classes with Dr. Jeremy Lane. I sent him an email but didn’t hear back, and the other professor I  wanted to see again, Marc A. Williams, no longer teaches at the university.

There are lecture theaters in Arts A that may have hosted the international students orientation in 1982. I remember sitting in a stadium-type theater, watching the man down at the podium rolling a joint. Or so we speculated among ourselves. He was actually rolling a cigarette, but I didn’t realize then that people did such a thing.

Or maybe it was this theater with blue seats in Chichester I, which is directly east of the Library, across the square.

In my memory the road from the train station to my flat in Park Village forms an arc. One night I was walking home through campus and kept glancing back at the man following me. When I reached Park Village he had almost caught up to me and remarked to another man that he thought he had scared me.

A path leads off to the right from Library Square, passing the Arts buildings on the left and Chichester on the right, going under Arts Road, and passing the new Jubilee Building on the left. That is most likely the arc I recall.

(If you go to the University of Sussex website, under About Us and then Campus and Facilities and then Campus Tour, you can launch the online campus tour. Click on Tour Map and then go to Campus Nature, which provides an aerial view of the campus that was taken several years ago, as far as I can tell. In the lower left corner, you’ll see Falmer House and the Meeting House to the right with its light-blue roof. The library is above another round building on the far left. A couple of sets of buildings above the library, still on the far left, is a very light-colored set of buildings that form an upside-down L. Today the Jubilee Building sits in that area.)

Across from Jubilee is Bramber House, which looked pretty brand-spanking-new to me, but I wonder if that’s an upgrade. I think that building may have housed the laundromat where Katie got electrocuted. If not, I can’t remember what was there before.

Bramber now has Eat Central and Dine Central, as well as the Students Union co-op that used to occupy the ground floor of York House. Signs advertising the move still adorn York House, which is also a residence kitty-corner northwest from Bramber.

And just north of York House is my first home at Sussex, Park Village, a V-shaped group of zigzag buildings, each one holding 12 flats. It was one of the things I recognized instantly.

The first person I recall meeting in my building is Majid, a student from Iran. He was afraid I would hate him because of the Iran hostage crisis. We became friends, and I discovered tzatziki at a dinner with some of his friends. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of him, but I do have a picture of these guys dressed up for a toga party. The one on the left definitely lived at Park Village, as you can see from the second picture.

During my campus visits, I found a building in Park Village that was unlocked and went in. The ground floor was more cramped than I remembered because of the kitchen; the shower and toilet are on the second floor. For some reason these buildings had two kitchens and one shower for twelve people. I don’t remember anyone quarreling over the kitchen, though I do remember a complaint posted near the shower about someone “wanking off” in there.

I left Park Village after the first trimester because the design of the building guaranteed that every room was cold.

So far, I’ve led you up through the west-central part of campus.

The campus is about 25 percent longer than it was in 1982. Park Village used to be the northernmost residence on the west side. Lewes Court, northeast of Park Village, was built in the 1990s, as was Brighthelm (across campus from Park Village and north of East Slope). Northfield, the newest and fanciest residence, lies at the northern end of campus.

Some of the newer flats have en-suite bathrooms. Rooms in Park Village had sinks with separate taps, but East Slope rooms didn’t—that’s why they were cheaper. I don’t remember it being a big deal, though I’m sure I had to wait for the shower sometimes, since I was sharing it with five of my flatmates.

I paid about 175 pounds per month in 1982–1983, but today the flats go for 80 to 130 pounds per week.

Here is East Slope from the 1980s, as well as some pictures taken in 2014.

Staff in the alumni office (in Mantell building) told me that East Slope, which was built in the 1970s, will be torn down and rebuilt in the next few years. They laughed as they recalled alumni saying they couldn’t believe it was still standing. The Students’ Union set up a website about the planned demolition of the East Slope Bar, where they express their concern about the university building a newer, privately managed bar to replace it.

I lived in East Slope from January through June 1983, so I must have gone to the bar with friends, but I don’t remember it. I have memories of sitting at a round table at a pub, and I did find this round table inside the bar. Maybe that pub I remember was East Slope Bar, and maybe it was somewhere else, in Falmer or in Brighton.

I was fascinated by East Slope and Park Village and kept going back to them and the open land that surrounded them, trying to relive my time there. I have always been oriented toward the past.

South of East Slope and east of Bramber House are the three long buildings that form Swanborough, another new residence. Swanborough residence, University of Sussex, UK, April 2014Except for Stanmer Court, which is right by the train station, Swanborough is the southernmost residence on campus. Between it and the A27 lie lecture halls and buildings dedicated to research and administration. When you enter campus from the train station, you pass among the buildings you might use during the day to reach the building where you sleep at night.

I found it disconcerting to be an adult on a college campus who isn’t a parent or a teacher or on staff. When I was a student at Sussex, I did my best not to look like a tourist. But this trip I was walking around with binoculars and camera, sometimes both draped around my neck at once, trying to identify new life birds and taking pictures of everything in sight.

Speaking of birds, were there always this many herring gulls on campus?

I’m so glad I made this trip. It was great fun to stand on the fields above East Slope, which offers a good view of campus, and remember my crazy flatmates who dropped acid one day and painted 72A; the Thanksgiving dinner we fixed for my boyfriend’s flatmates and the shop clerk complaining “Bloody Americans!” because we wanted canned pumpkin to make pie; people playing frisbee along the seafront in Brighton; the classmates who flummoxed me by pointing out corporate influence on politics (so much more true today) and Marc Williams responding, “America is not a monolith!”

At times I felt like a ghost in plain sight, and at times I tried to bring back more of that girl. Now I have reacquainted myself with campus and it will be familiar to me for a little while, but most of that comes from the new memories I just made, not what happened thirty years ago.

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I want to thank Sarah Brown and Sally Atkinson at the University of Sussex alumni office, who took time out of their day to help me figure out where the international student orientation might have been held and where the old co-op was located.