I walked into the town centre today. The streets of Durham were thronged with young people enjoying an afternoon out in the balmy October air. For the students are back at the start of another academic year in the University. This little city of ours is awakening out of a long dreamy summer ready for the bracing air of autumn and winter.
Last weekend the freshers arrived, many accompanied by bewildered-looking parents trying to navigate large cars through the narrow streets of the medieval city (on the Bailey we call it 'Volvo Sunday'). This week over 6000 of them have streamed into the Cathedral college by college for University matriculation ceremonies. It's interesting to look round the Cathedral during these occasions. Some freshers look a bit baffled by it all ('how did I come to be here?). Others put on a big and not altogether convincing show of bravado. Many have already started to hunt in packs: for security in this new kind of world, better to stick together. A few seem determined to be solitary.
This ceremony of being admitted to the register (matricula) is a big rite of passage into adulthood for those who have come straight from school. It's a chance for me to welcome them to Durham and say a little about the Cathedral and what it offers students. I always get a laugh when I talk about this medieval cathedral having a FaceBook page, whose ageing dean tweets from time to time. The president of the Student Union speaks about student life, and the Vice-Chancellor makes them feel good about having got into one of the nation's top universities.
It's slightly trying to drive or walk up and down the Bailey and Sadler Street in October: new students take a few weeks to get the hang of how pedestrians and road traffic have to befriend each other as we thread our way gingerly along. But the leisurely pace allows time for unexpected and pleasant encounters. Today I have had three long and interesting conversations on the pavement. I have been smiled at by one or two teenagers I'd not knowingly met - no doubt freshers who'd seen me in the Cathedral or, if they were from St Chad's, at the College's welcome ceremony last Sunday.
These brief encounters are among the pleasures of Durham life. On a Saturday, it's no use trying to get down to town and back in half an hour for a quick visit to M&S or Waterstones. When you are the dean in a miniature city, a lot of locals know you by sight, including students. It's an enjoyable opportunity to mingle, bump into others (sometimes literally), open conversations, notice people. Who knows where these unlooked-for meetings and conversations may lead? Especially when, like freshers, you are new to the place?
Students bring great liveliness to our city. I see this as a gift. Sometimes there are stresses and strains between town and gown, and residents become grumpy. But I want to emphasize the benefits students bring to Durham. It's good to have them back. Here's wishing freshers the best of times at university. And a good new year to all students.