‘You gotta do ’em over,’ said my dad, shaking his head sorrowfully. That was 40 years ago today: 6 July 1974. I can hear him now, with his soft American voice, uttering words which I was not expecting to hear.
He was conveying the news that I had failed my first-year biology exams at Exeter University, something I had never anticipated. And the shock came at the end of a wonderful day. I was at Lancaster University, at a conference about national parks with my heroine and mentor Sylvia Sayer, Dartmoor’s champion.
This was my first experience the national scene, and I had met people who had just been names before: Ian Campbell (secretary of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society), John Cripps (chairman of the Countryside Commission), Mervyn Osmond (from the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, as it was then known), Gerald Haythornthwaite (chairman of the Council for National Parks) and many others. It was a taste of my future life and I was on a high.
I knew the exam results were due that day and I had authorised the parents to open the letter before coming up to fetch me en route to a holiday in Scotland. At the end of the conference Sylvia encouraged me to seek out mum and dad and ask about the results, so she was with me at the time. We were both devastated by this news. I had never before failed an exam and I had worked hard for these ones.
In fact the parents were so dismayed that they had rung my good friend Hil Scott (now Marshall), also in her first year at Exeter, to find out how she had fared. Her post hadn’t arrived by then and she spent some anxious minutes thinking that she too must have failed until the postman came. Fortunately she had passed.
That evening, in Hornby in the Lune Valley, I stuffed countless coins into the callbox to talk to the patient Hil, endlessly going over how could this possibly have happened. We cut our Scottish trip short and I raced back to Devon to confront my professor, David Nichols, the marine biologist.
He explained that my problem was that I wrote too much and didn’t answer the questions! So after a worrying summer I did the retakes and passed.
It came out OK in the end, but that day 40 years ago is one I’ll never forget.