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Bedsit stories: Student living wasn't always so stylish

By Emma Cowan

Published 20/02/2016

Hard night: outside student homes in the Holylands area of south Belfast
Hard night: outside student homes in the Holylands area of south Belfast
Student chic: the former Metropolitan College will offer stylish living space
Emma Cowan
A heap of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink
Comfortable living: student accommodation at John Bell House in Belfast city centre is a far cry from some of the properties that students inhabited in the past
Comfortable living: student accommodation at John Bell House in Belfast city centre is a far cry from some of the properties that students inhabited in the past
Comfortable living: student accommodation at John Bell House in Belfast city centre is a far cry from some of the properties that students inhabited in the past
Comfortable living: student accommodation at John Bell House in Belfast city centre is a far cry from some of the properties that students inhabited in the past
Comfortable living: student accommodation at John Bell House in Belfast city centre is a far cry from some of the properties that students inhabited in the past
Good cheer: Frances didn’t object to her student squalor
Good cheer: Frances didn’t object to her student squalor

Belfast's landmark Metropolitan College building is being transformed into luxury en suite student apartments at up to an eye-watering £720-a-month rental. Three Belfast Telegraph writers have altogether grimier recollections of slumming it in dingy flats while, overleaf, local celebs share their memories of uni days.

Emma Cowan: ‘Our carpets were threadbare, full of bugs and sticky underfoot’

It's going to be all mod cons for Belfast students of the future, with a total of 1,600 new student rooms given the green light. Private room, en suite, central heating, wifi - the works. It's a far cry from student accommodation of yesteryear, that's for sure. But is it all for the better?

Back in the day, my experience was somewhat different. Four walls and a roof, waterproof and windproof, could be taken for granted, but nothing else on that list of essentials for today's pampered students.

I lived in two student houses; one off Botanic Avenue and the other on the edge of the Holylands. Heat was in one room only and came from a real fire (now considered a health and safety hazard, or an unwanted insurance premium).

I had the head start there, for I already knew how to set a fire. One of my housemates had to learn the hard way, with cold evenings of trial and error.

Carpets were, at best, threadbare and bug-rich and, on occasion, sticky underfoot.

Beds? Well, mine was a mattress on the floor, though in my second house I graduated to a whole bed. One basic bathroom for everybody and plenty of catfights before nights out in the students' union.

The kitchen could have been the heart of the home - if only we had all been able to fit in at once. But it had what we needed: cooker, fridge, sink, kettle.

One house had a great innovation. It was an upper-story flat, so we had a rubbish chute devised by the landlord, which emptied into the bin in the yard. Great. Until it got blocked.

Maybe to students these days, that all sounds dreadful, but it wasn't. It was fun - hilarious at times.

It was also a learning and growing experience, both in practical living and human development.

The fabled long nights discussing the meaning of life over endless cups of coffee actually happened, something that can't be replicated by being cocooned in a contract-furnished, designer, but potentially lonely and isolating single room.

We learned to develop relationships, build trust, respect, empathy and consideration. You can't do that alone.

Then there were the strange, but funny moments that stick in your memory. Like walking in to view the flat currently inhabited by rather upmarket law students - only to discover that they used the bath as an oversized coal scuttle. Posh, smart, but not clean, then.

Or, in the Holylands, the next-door neighbour, a resident, blithely telling my boyfriend that, yes, his car was missing, but not to worry. He had taken it for "a bit of a joyride".

To be fair, he told us where it was and he hadn't damaged it, or stolen the contents. He even gave us back the keys.

Even now, I probably don't live in the level of comfort and decorative balance that our students will enjoy in their des-res rooms.

But there's more to life than comfort.

Lee Henry: 'I walked in on a 12-inch rat terrorising our kitchen'

I completed my Bachelor's degree in English and History at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2004 and look back on that time through rose-tinted spectacles - partly because of the subsequent experience of living and studying in Belfast.

Not only was I able to immerse myself in the subjects that I loved, I also lodged for the duration with my Mancunian grandmother, a hard-talking, no-nonsense, secretive Daniel O'Donnell fan, who introduced me to Yorkshire puddings and casual racism.

She cooked for me, cleaned for me and charged very little rent in return. Every day was like Sunday. And I loved it.

In reality, my time working toward an ultimately disappointing 2:2 was no walk in the park. My studies were difficult and I was forced to work unsociable shifts in a well-known chicken-based fast food establishment in order to pay off a first-year credit card spent, in record time, on CDs and beer.

Compared to what came next, however, my Manchester memories are idyllic. I undertook postgraduate studies in journalism from a shared house on Belfast's University Street - the main arterial route leading into and, mercifully, out of the Holylands area of south Belfast - excited to relocate to the capital after a brief recharging of the batteries in my native Newcastle, Co Down. With the blinkered outlook of someone who has spent the past four years living with their grandmother, I paid for the first room I had the (dis)pleasure of viewing - an exceptionally large quadruple bedroom looking out onto what is now the Ibis Hotel (then Renshaw's Bar) - without even checking the carpet for bugs.

I spent that first night observing legions of freshers serenading one other on the street after final orders with endless renditions of The Killers' Mr Brightside and scoffed at their youthful naivety.

"They'll learn," I convinced myself, before searching for a sleep that never came. Even now, years later and with a wife and child nearby to keep me sane, I hear that discordant chorus in my nightmares.

It is much easier to put up with such distractions and the demands and challenges of further education when surrounded by supportive friends and luckily I shared that towering, teetering edifice with a core of long-term lodgers similar in age and sensibility, including a mild-mannered creationist with whom I disagreed on almost every subject and two motor-mouthed Dublin girls who thought Belfast quaint, despite the regular blood-letting at closing time.

When my studies were finally over and I was able to move up in the world - to a luxurious, one-bedroom flat in Stranmillis - I did so with an overwhelming sense of relief, not least because it meant leaving behind the 12-inch rat who terrorised our kitchen toward the end, when I was almost alone following a mass exodus of housemates who simply could not stomach the living-room slugs any longer. I walked in on it one morning, that fearless rodent, as it attempted to chew the gristle from our cooker and our eyes met as an inmate's meets a jailer's. And when I recall that brief, hellish union, I can't help but think that students these days, by all accounts, don't know they're born.

Frances Burscough: 'Every day I'd dodge drug addicts and kerb-crawlers'

I'm sorry, but I'm not in the least bit impressed by this new build of so-called 'luxury' student apartments at Belfast Metropolitan College.

In my opinion, the words 'student' and 'luxury' do not belong together in a sentence. Ever. Certainly not if it's describing accommodation.

Anyone who has ever lived in student digs - with the possible exception of Prince William and David Cameron - will tell you that the whole essence of student life revolves around squalor.

It's all part of that great rite of passage that is leaving home to go to university: you forsake a lovely, tidy, warm and cosy family homestead, where the fridge is always full, the cupboards always stocked, the radiators always on and all's right with the world, to start a life of grime in a virtually uninhabitable dump occupied by oddballs and wierdos, where the only creature comforts are actual vermin.

And, what's more, you absolutely love it.

My first experience of student accommodation - when I was a student of Fashion at Manchester Polytechnic in 1984 - was as follows: 24 Atholl Road, Whalley Range; the most squalid house in the most unkempt road in one of the most rundown parts of town.

Nowadays, like a lot of urban areas outside thriving cities, it has been done-up and gentrified. But, back in 'my day', Whalley Range, with its interminable rows of three-storey terraced houses providing perfectly grotty digs for generations of students and other assorted drop-outs, had no redeeming features whatsoever.

To describe it as a humble abode would have been a gross understatement. It was cold, damp and treacherous. Mine was the middle bedsit in the converted Victorian terrace in what can only be described as a slum.

Above me lived a prostitute, who plied her trade in the house at all hours of the day and night, so the communal doorbell never stopped ringing. Next door was a pregnant teenager and her junkie boyfriend, while below me was a de-frocked priest who coughed and wheezed so much I assumed he had caught Bubonic plague from the rats who lived below us all in the cellar and occasionally surfaced to raid our bins.

The carpet was mouldy and stained with God-only-knows-what; the air was musty and smelt faintly of putrefaction, while the ancient faded wallpaper was peeling away from every damp dripping dingy surface.

My flat was 'fully furnished' with Oxfam rejects, while the only mod-cons were dodgy wiring plug sockets, a three-bar heater that sparked when you switched it on and an electricity meter that sold half-an-hour's water heating for 50p.

So, what was so good, or so beneficial, about my student digs, I hear you ask. Well, it was a melting pot. Almost all my fellow students were in the same boat. We'd all left home and moved to another galaxy far, far, away.

Regardless of our background, or circumstances, we all went through the same culture-shock and the camaraderie that resulted have remained forever as unbreakable friendships.

It was thrilling to be free and independent and, for the first time, to be able to please myself. It also taught me how to persevere, to cope, to face adversity and personal threat and to survive and to thrive against all odds.

You may think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. Every day I was dodging drug addicts and kerb-crawlers and muggers and every vice imaginable just to get to and from classes. And as for going out at night, CSI Miami had nothing on the last bus home to Whalley Range.

But, in retrospect, the most important things I learned during those four years, was to appreciate the home life that I'd had; the things that you take for granted when you're growing up.

It taught me the value of things, the importance of maintaining relationships, of courtesy and kindness and how it must feel to have nothing, or nobody.

Luxury student accommodation certainly won't be able to offer that - even for £180 per week.

Ups and downs of student life

Rebecca McKinney (29) is co-host on the Cool FM breakfast show and also works as a fashion stylist. She says:

I attended Queen's University to study Law and I graduated in 2005. It was a three-year degree and, for my first year, I lived at home.

I moved with friends into a house in my second year. It wasn't a very studenty area at all, but we got a new-build, four-bedroomed house for £600 a month.

My rent was only £125 a month, so it was absolutely worth it.

I think if I was to do it again, I would rather live in the thick of student life - but only in a place that was really good quality and really good value for money."

Claire Sugden (29) is an Independent MLA. She lives in Coleraine with her fiance, Andy. She says:

I went to Queen's from 2005-2008 and I stayed in the Elms Halls of Residence in my first year. For me, it was a bit of a burden to walk up and down the hill to it.

The rooms were pretty basic, although I paid more for an en suite bathroom, which helped.

I studied Politics and that meant I was only in for two days a week. My family are from Coleraine, so for the second and third year I lived at home.

My rent in halls cost £75 a week, but my train fare was £30 for a month, so it wasn't good value for me to stay in Belfast."

Emma Pengelly (36) is a DUP MLA and junior minister. She lives in Belfast with her husband, Richard. She says:

I studied law at Queen's from 1998. I spent a year as deputy president of the students' union after I graduated and then I spent another couple of years doing my postgraduate barrister training.

I'm originally from Markethill and I didn't drive, so it made sense for me to stay up in Belfast. In my first year, I managed to get accommodation in the halls at Stranmillis College, because my sister was studying there.

After first year, my sister and I moved into shared houses with four or five others. That was in the days before a lot of shared housing legislation had come in and I don't think they were in the best condition.

People bought student houses as an investment, but they didn't invest in the property itself."

Interviews: Kerry McKittrick

Belfast Telegraph

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