Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Claret and Clarity: Feature

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Claret and Clarity: Feature

Article excerpt

John Gilbey pays a pre-Christmas visit to the publicity-shy but prosperous University of Rural England, which has everything needed to make a scholar want to stay for ever and ever.

As the train eased into the elegant Victorian station on that crisp December morning, I admit that I was still having some concerns about my visit to the University of Rural England. The ten years that had passed since my first meeting with its famously pugilistic vice-chancellor had not dimmed the picture I still had of him: ranting, scarlet-faced, at a bewildered audience of academics at a seminar in darkest Bloomsbury. I was hoping that he had mellowed somewhat in the interim.

Within a quarter of an hour, a taxi had deposited me outside the sculpted sandstone edifice of the Old Abbey, at the heart of the URE estate. A smiling - and somehow familiar - member of staff directed me to reception, where I was met by the head of communications, and over a welcome cup of coffee she described the plan for the day.

First up was a visit to the newly refurbished library.

As we made our way through the corridors, quads and halls of the campus, I noticed a sense of focused calm in the people we passed. Around them the infrastructure was of impressively high quality and well maintained, with teams of workers tending the wintry gardens in the milky sunshine. The brightly coloured sweatshirts worn by cheerful students bore the prominent slogan, "URE: The Best University You've Never Heard Of". The whole place exuded a sense of well-being - so much so that it was almost disturbing.

Tasteful glass and steel additions to the original structure, along with heady infusions of high technology, had turned the west wing of the Old Abbey into an exemplary modern workspace. As the head librarian handed me his business card, I asked him about the "URE 1000" logo embossed on it. "This year marks our 1,000th anniversary," he smiled. I must have looked sceptical, because he elaborated: "The Abbey scriptorium was established in 1013 and - in an intellectual sense at least - that marks to me the foundation of the university." I began to wonder what else my hurried research had failed to reveal about the place.

Lunch was served in the Senior Common Room. The view from it was charmingly bucolic; extending across the frosted lawns and meadows to the river, it sat well with the Tudor panelling, leather Chesterfields and massive stone fireplace of the room, which was tastefully decorated for the season. I decided I rather liked URE.

The vice-chancellor, glass in hand, met me at the window and introduced himself with a handshake of immense presence. Whether it was the effect of being on his home turf I don't know, but he seemed relaxed - youthful even - and with the air of a country gentleman hosting an informal weekend house party. As we sat down to a Christmas-themed lunch, the main course of which was an excellent venison dish ("from our own herd of Rudolphs", contributed the v-c, pointing towards the deer park with a bloodied knife), he declared that verbal combat could commence.

My first request was to discover the origin of the excellent claret - the first taste of which burst upon my jaded palate like nectar. The v-c smiled: "I'm glad you like it; we source it from our own estates. We are lucky enough to have retained - or, in a sense, rediscovered - our connections with some small family vintners in the region." Rediscovered? "Yes, a lot of our legal records were thought lost in the great fire of 1802, and it has taken a while to resolve matters."

Intrigued, I asked for details. The registrar, an astonishingly pale figure alongside the robust, claret-fuelled v-c, took up the tale. "It really stems from our Institutional Review in 2009. The economic meltdown was a disaster, so we commissioned a group of City experts to advise us and, while much of their advice was unpalatable, a few core elements did meet our needs."

The v-c was more forthright. …

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