Ramblers are good at navigating but even we had some difficulty finding our way around York University’s confusing campus at our general council last weekend. And I wish I had taken Pevsner with me so as to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of the architecture.
I had been to York Uni twice before, once in November 1972 when I went for an interview for a biology degree. I had already decided I wanted to go to Exeter, but this was a practice run. I returned in 1994 for the Ramblers’ general council. I remembered the lake from both occasions; it is quite a feature. This time I found a helpful chart of the birds one might see and clocked my first goosander of the year.
Pevsner (The Buildings of England,Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, 1972 edition), in his inimitable style, writes of the university (established 1960): ‘As for the new buildings and their siting, they have resulted in the best of the new universities, visually and structurally, thanks to one stroke of genius and one highly sensible decision. The stroke of genius is the large lake. It provides all the undulation and some of the variety one wants to see, and it allows the buildings to be entirely reasonable and to keep away from all gimmicks. The decision referred to was to use the CLASP system, a system of modular dimensioning and prefabricated parts.’
CLASP stands for Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (I suspect there should be an apostrophe after ‘authorities’). It was formed in 1957 to combine local authorities’ resources in building prefabricated schools. Some of the buildings at York University, such as Vanbrugh and Langwith Colleges, demonstrate notable uses of the CLASP system. It consisted of prefabricated, light steel frames which could be built economically to four storeys and finished in a variety of claddings. Pevsner noted that the system ‘allowed York to build more quickly and more cheaply than the others, which was and is imperative’.
But, lest you should think this might be dull, he swiftly retorts: ‘ Now all this may sound like boredom; in fact it is nothing of the sort. The first two colleges, Derwent [where we held general council] and Langwith, are so intricately planned, with inner courtyards—even a square pool off the lake—many walkways, and projections this way and that, that one hardly comes to feel the chief reason behind it all’.
Pevsner approves of the Central Hall ‘where—rightly—fancy is allowed free run’. It is a half-octagon with its canted sides to the lake. He is less complimentary about the physics laboratory which ‘is no asset in the general scenery’.
Tucked away in the south-east corner is Heslington Hall which is part of nearby Heslington, an estate village with a single street and attractive church.
The hall was the centre of the new university, albeit in a corner of it. It is a Victorian recasting of the Elizabethan manor. Close by is The Quiet Place with its large rounded hedges.
There are some pleasant sculptures. Greylag geese are everywhere, hissing threateningly at me as I went on my morning run.