Saturday, 25 September 2010

Aberystwyth University - Best Years of My Life

With some amazement and inredulity, I find myself looking back on what has been a rather remarkable 10 years of my life.

It was on this Freshers weekend, back in September 2000, that I arrived in Aberystwyth University as a green, naïve and shy young, just turned 18 year old. Looking back over the past decade, there is no doubt that I owe Aberystwyth and its University a great debt of gratitude for helping me to become the not so green, naïve and shy man that I am today.

Pantycelyn, Freshers Week - September 2000
Over the years, some memories dim with age, but some continue to shine brightly as seminal moments in your life.

I can very clearly remember one of those as I arrived at Pantycelyn Halls of Residence on the Friday of Freshers weekend (10 years ago yesterday). I was very much walking into the unknown. I'd been a competent, pleasant and agreeable pupil in Whitland primary and secondary schools but going to Aberystwyth, with no-one from my year joining me, meant that I had to socialise and make new friends like never before.

Pantycelyn was definitely the best place to do so. As a Welsh language hall of residence, it had an in-built community which you wouldn't find in a Penrbyn, Cwrt Mawr or Rosser. I arrived with only 3 others on that Friday - Griff, Huw and Carl (I ended up becoming best mates with Huw over the years). But it was on the Saturday that everyone else arrived in force - that's over 250 arriving in one day when the 4 of us had decided to arrive a day earlier! I can remember a group of us met up in Room 199 which was being shared by Griff and Dai and after a number of 'bonding' drinks of vodka and orange juice, we all made our way down into town for our first proper night out in University. As Pantycelyn students, one of the central stops is of course 'Yr Hen Llew Du (the Black Lion) on Bridge St and I recall that we all suddenly left en masse for the next pub whilst Huw was still in the toilets - I don't think we saw him again that night!

The Pantycelyn Freshers Week was always an entertaining one and I half heartedly threw myself into it. I knew I needed to extend myself to meet new friends but I limited myself to some of their activities and nights out and not all of them - it was my way of keeping in control of myself.

Pantycelyn Life
I had the great fortune of living in Pantycelyn for 2 years. Firstly in Room 130 with Owen Ashton (we got up to some larks!) and then in a single Room 210 opposite Huw's in my second year. By this time I'd become friends with 'the boys' - the gang from Pontardawe, Ystalyfera & Gwaen Cau Gurwen with whom I catch up with to this day, as often as possible in between our respective, busy lives.

It was as a group of us that we moved into St Arvans, No.14 Llanbadarn Road in our 3rd year. After 2 years in Halls, we wanted the experience of living in town and it was the best year of my time in University.

Whilst many residents of Pantycelyn were more than happy to remain within the walls of the community that existed there, my feet always itched to do more.

I had joined the Liberal Democrats for the first time in that first September of University 10 years ago but I didn't get active until I delivered a solitary round of leaflets around Pantycelyn during the 2001 General Election (no mean feat in a Hall that is generally regarded as having a high level of enthusiasm and activity for Plaid Cymru!). I was still finding my feet and for that first year my only objective was to survive.

Nevertheless, my first year was very much a 'Pantycelyn' year where my studies were mixed with a social scene that centred exclusively around the Halls in which I was a resident.

Playing Pool
The one 'exception' to this first year rule, was my pool playing exploits. I remember vividly as if it were yesterday the day that Damian, Dai and I were walking down Penglais Hill from Pantycelyn into town and walked past this pub that had a bizzare looking, orange baized pool table. It was enough to lure us in for a look and a few frames.

That pub of course was the 'Weston Vaults' - a pub that I've always regarded as being my 'local' in the town ever since.

Now I've always been handy with a pool cue. No Ronnie O'Sullivan I'll grant you, but not bad all the same. But it was on that first, mid-afternoon visit, that I was given the encouragement to do something with it. Dai, Damian and I were playing a few frames and I remember noticing a chap sitting alone at the bar came, watching us. It was slightly un-nerving. Suddenly, he came over and challenged me to a game. I was rather non-plussed by this challenge but took it on and gamely lost a best of 3 encounter to him, 2-1. It was enough for him to recommend me to join the local pool team! So I did! I drafted Huw in alongside me for company (and I must admit, he was just a tad better than me) and we had a wonderfully enjoyable season on the pool circuit playing for the Weston's 'B' team - the 'student' team. Ironically, the student 'B' team had been promoted the year before and the 'A' team of locals had been relegated. So we were playing in the 2nd division of the Aberystwyth Pool League that winter and finished a highly credible 5th out of 9 whilst the 'A' team failed to get promotion back out of the 3rd division!

For that year, Tuesday night was 'pool' night. My pool playing exploits gradually declined as the years went on and other activities took more of my time but in that first yet, as a rare outlet to Pantycelyn living, it was immeasureably good fun and I met a great gang of mates along the way. The memories of beating the owner of the Fountain in Trefechan on his pool table and with his own pool cue will live long in the memory as will the 1-3 comeback to win 4-3 away to the Academy! The names Ed, Chad, Maggs, Trystan, Rob et al will always remind me of a happy period in my life.

Spreading the Wings...
Liberal Democrats (Part I)
It was in my second year that I began to find the confidence to truly expand my social horizons. Initially, it was becoming active in the Liberal Democrats that got me going. I recall making the decision in the first week of term in 2001 to go to a meeting of the re-launched student group. I remember looking at the e-mail list and noticing that there were 30-40 recipients of the e-mail with the details to that first meeting. I naïvely presumed therefore that there'd be 30-40 odd people at that meeting! It was only on walking into the Varsity and walking up to the balcony there that I was greeted with the slightly less spectacular sight of 8-10 members. Of course the irony is that Andrew Falconer, who was the first student group President, had a much more worldy knowledge of how many to expect at a political gathering of students and he in contrast, was delighted with the turnout!

During that year, there was a group of 4-5 of us who were active within the group - Andrew, Stuart, Richard, Griff and myself. Suddenly, I started going to constituency dinners (my first being a Lord Geraint Howells dinner in the Marine Hotel that autumn) and to external conferences (Manchester and Llandudno in the spring of '02). As a result of becoming politically active, I got involved in Union politics and stood in the spring of '02 in the annual Students Union elections. I was elected unopposed to the non-sabbatical position of Environmental Officer.

As a result of being a student in the excellent International Politics Department in the University, I had the opportunity to go on its 'Parliamentary Placement' scheme in the summer of '02 at the end of my second year. 5 weeks in the Welsh Assembly working as an intern for the Liberal Democrats opened doors of opportunity for me by getting me involved with the party at a higher level and as a result, on advice from our then Welsh Chief Executive Chris Lines, I stood as a Lib Dem Youth and Students representative on the Welsh Lib Dem Executive Committee and the Welsh Lib Dem Campaigns Committee the following year, 2003.

What was greatly fortunate though was that I had come to University town where the liberal tradition was strong. Between 1874-1966 and again between 1974-1992, it was A Liberal / Liberal Democrat MP that had been in residence. So the opportunites for me as a liberal were instantly much greater for me here than they may have been in other University towns.

Final Year Madness
As against the normal way of things, my busiest and most active year of University was actually my final year. Amidst the undergradutate studies and dissertation work that was of paramount importance, my growing self-confidence led me to get involved with more activities. In 2002-03, I was now the Secretary of the student Liberal Democrat branch, I was a non-sabbatical member of the Student Union Executive and I also became Treasurer of the History Society.

History Society
The latter development was very much a 'coup' led by myself and good history student friend Caroline. We'd both decided that the current history society was rather bland and un-inspiring and took it over in the annual elections as Treasurer and President respectively to liven it up somewhat. Our weekly 'History' socials became a highlight of my week as we sought to make history more 'fun' and we made many good new friends from across the departmental spectrum that year (although the departmental chiefs may not have been so amused!).

Union Politics
I was an active Environmental Officer and decided to make 'Environmental Week' in the spring of '03 actually that. In years gone by, it was merely a 'day' of promoting environmental awareness around the University but I wanted to make more of it. I launched an 'Environmental Sub-Committee' of willing enthusiasts to help me in my task and was rather delighted when the vast majority of those who showed an interest happened to be women! Again, we had some great nights out as a group and in total there must have been about a dozen or so of us who had gotten to know each other. The week itself was a real success and at the end of it, on April 1st of all days, I announced my resignation from the Guild Executive after what had been a productive and enjoyable year to allow my replacement Martin Kohring to take over earlier than planned and also to allow me to concentrate my efforts on concluding my dissertation (yes, I was still studying despite all of this!).

Liberal Democrats (Part II)
I also needed time to concentrate on the up-coming Welsh Assembly elections. By the end of my final year as an undergraduate, I was by now well emersed in liberal politics. A member of Welsh Lib Dem committees and one of the active leaders in the student group, we now had an election to fight and John Davies was our new but willing candidate.

In fact, my role during the month of April itself was to telephone canvass voters from across the Mid & West Wales region. That was 40 hours a week telehpone canvassing for 4 weeks. I was being paid to do so but still, it was quite an exercise. I did so out of our regional organiser Anders Hanson's flat in Penmorfa, North Road. But I also had a 12,000 word History dissertation to write.

So for that one crazy month, my routine which I will never forget, revolved around me getting up and leaving Llanbadarn Road and making my way up to the National Library after 8am to spend each morning there until lunchtime, researching for my dissertation. Then by 1pm, I'd be stationed in Anders' flat, ready for a day of telephone canvassing. I finished at 9pm (with a small break to watch Countdown in between!) and would go the office on North Parade to give Anders my daily data. A month later, we had an excellent result in Ceredigion in which we reduced a Plaid majority from over 10,000 down to 4,500.

I also managed to score a First in my dissertation with a 70% score on my way to an eventual high 2:1 degree. The key to that was choosing a dissertation topic for which I enjoyed doing the researching and groundwork. Of course, politics was involved and I still take great pleasure in my work revolving around the 1963 Conservative leadership crisis.

MA & Beyond...
Despite the sudden death of my father which I blogged about here, I returned to Aberystwyth to study my Masters in History in the fall of '04 and was now Chair of the student Liberal Democrat group. I was also on the Steering and Elections Committee in the Student Union and was nominated as one of 4 delegates to attend the annual NUS Conference in Blackpool's Winter Gardens in the spring of '04 (in the politically amusing company of Tory (losing Colchester 2010 candidate) Will Quince, future Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins and enthusiastic environmental activist Lydia Bulmer).

Having by now attended numerous Welsh and Federal Liberal Democrat conferences, my first visit to a 5 day autumn conference in Brighton '03 opened the doors up to my future as Chris Lines sought my views on standing to be a new Constituency Organiser for the Ceredigion Liberal Democrats. The following spring, it came to pass and from there I decided to stand for local government and was elected at the same time (a 'veritable double-whammy' as Charles Kennedy called it in a hand-written letter he sent to me after the event) to both Aberystwyth Town Council and Ceredigion County Council as a Cardigan County Councillor, in June '04. Working on the wonderful 2005 election win for Mark Williams, his stupendous re-election 5 years later and my working for him and being a Councillor and also Mayor of Cardigan in my own right in between, all flowed from there.

What If?
So I really have an unbelievable debt of gratitude towards Aberystwyth University.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder what may have been had I have decided to take up one of my other UCAS options. My reserve choice was the University of Glamorgan. What would've become of me had I have gone there? Would I have become politically active locally and had the opportunity to intern in Cardiff Bay? Would my confidence levels have increased there as much as they did in Aberystwyth?

I'll never know of course. But what I do know is that where I am now and all that I have achieved during the past 10 years must be dedicated to the decision to study in Aberystwyth University in the first place.

Good Luck to the Class of 2010
So, in mulling over in this written format, what has been an incredible period in my life (and the scarcely believable fact that 10 years has flown by so quickly), there is only two more things left for me to do. To raise a glass of gratitude to my old alumni and to wish the best of luck to all those who are this very weekend, making that great jump into unchartered waters that I made myself, 10 years ago.

Thank you Aberystwyth University and good luck to the Freshers of 2010 - you made a sound choice to come to Aberystwyth. That decision changed my life around for the good and I hope it does the same to you.

1 comment:

  1. Mark

    Glad to see you have mentioned the history society whilst you were at Aber.

    Happy times.