Sometimes students have the luxury of living in dramatic accommodation – castles, mansions, lighthouses. Imagine my delight when friends invited me to join them at The Umbra. The house already had a reputation at the university – it was large, miles away, with scant transport. Why would students want to live so far from the university?
Well, it had miles and miles of empty sandy beach, acres of grounds, and spectacular unclimbable cliffs in the back garden. Inside were two large reception rooms, with a spacious stone-floored pantry and generous kitchen at the back. Upstairs were nine bedrooms, or rooms that could be bedrooms. Moreover it was fully furnished.
I had already seen the house and gleefully accepted the invitation. We had our own natural hierarchy in the house; first come had first choice of bedroom, and so the last come had the smaller rooms. No problem: space was not a problem. Memory tells me that even the smallest room was larger than a room in university students’ accommodation today.
And the rent was incredibly low, even for those days: £10 a week – total, for all nine of us! Thus, we paid scarcely £1 each a week. That meant much more money available for the other things students do.
The surroundings were magnificent. Behind the house the land rose steeply, culminating in cliffs that were crumbling and far too dangerous to climb. In 1913 a landslip from the cliffs had wiped out the tennis courts. Presumably no-one was playing at the time. Our water was acquired from a spring a short way up the slope, and processed through an intricate filtration system down a pipe into the house. Every so often the entry pipe would get blocked and the water would dry up. Quite an adventure in the night to go out to deblock it. The gardens were largely untended, but we stuck to it and cut the grass at the front, even digging a vegetable garden at the side. In the late spring, early summer we discovered that the hedge at the front beside the road was made up of gigantic fuchsia trees – I can’t call them bushes; they were simply too big.
Across the road and the railway level crossing, which was almost in front of the house, lay the dunes. A half-mile of dune, then the sea. The sea was usually grey, and less inviting: Northern seas often are. But it was bracing. The wind coming off the North Atlantic coupled with squalls meant energetic walking. But it was good walking along those miles of sand, around the cliffs where the ridge met the coast, all the way to the next hamlet: there was the pub. And we patronized it well.
Why was it so cheap? Well, it had been empty for 25 years, and need redecorating. But the owner asked us to paint it as we wished, with the cost of paint coming off our rent. So we lived rent-free in fact for a few months! However, one outer wall was too damp to paint.
And down the road, further along the strand to the west, past the barbed wire entanglements, looking out towards Donegal, lay the internment camp of Magilligan. This was Northern Ireland in 1972. This was after Bloody Sunday.
The Umbra was a legend at the university in those days. We lived in student luxury, on the margins of the Troubles. But we were neither naïve nor immune. This was the Umbra in 1972.
Times have changed. Students do not live there anymore. The Umbra has been completely restored and is on the market for £895,000. I wonder whether any of my ex-housemates can afford it.