Reunited: Loftier dreams than of crisps and red cheese

January 14, 2005

TV producer Mark Henderson, who was held captive in Colombia in 2003, returned to Leicester University

I would love to say that I chose to go to Leicester to study French and politics, that it was my number one university choice, that I had spent my sixth-form study periods dreaming of the gleaming spires of the Walkers crisp factory and tracing my finger over pictures of the curry houses that lined the city centre. But I can't.

Leicester chose me. In fact, it was the only university that did. I'll never be sure if this was thanks to the bad predictive grades from my school or my erratically filled in Universities and Colleges Application Service forms, which flitted between studying Afro-Caribbean studies at Birmingham University and Egyptology at Manchester University.

Regardless, in autumn of 1991 I headed to the hometown of Adrian Mole feeling that I should have and, perhaps more precociously, could have done better.

Leicester never lived up to my lofty expectations and romantic notions of university days; lounging on lawns, surrounded by ivy-clad temples of learning, bouncing intelligent conversation off my equally impoverished, but immaculately dressed, friends (I think there was also a punt, a bottle of sherry and a discarded boater in there somewhere).

To me, Leicester was just a big red-brick institution halfway down the M1 that had given the world Thomas Cook, some fine crisps and a red cheese.

It was only on revisiting the university and city for the first time in nine years that I realised I had done them a huge disservice. The buildings that I had once seen as modern monstrosities, blots on the Leicestershire landscape, now rose up above the skyline as gleaming examples of Sixties listed architecture, daring the students to be different.

I even discovered that my hall (the rumour at the time had been that it was designed on a Swedish prison) was now a Grade 2 listed building, the first example of brick and concrete in the UK. The lawns were also there. I had never bothered to look out of the student union bar long enough to appreciate them.

It is true that, along with youth, education is wasted on the young and Leicester's charms were definitely wasted on me at the time. The university sits comfortably in the top 20, a national leader in several fields of research. Walking around the campus I felt the sudden urge to return and do it all again, this time properly.

But I was quickly put off as I watched the startled faces of students waiting outside the exam halls to sit their finals, the faint smell of fear in the air.

Perhaps Leicester's proudest boast is that it houses one of the major research centres for the Beagle 2 Mars Probe. Wandering around the Space Research Centre, I couldn't help but feel the sense of achievement despite the odds and the outcome.

When the director cheerfully put forward his "Pointy Rock Theory" (that Beagle just hit a pointy rock on landing), his smile gave away a deeper sadness, knowing that his team had advanced space science and pushed the laws of physics but just hadn't accounted for Murphy's Law.

It seems ironic that Christmas 2003, just 24 hours after my parents were waiting for the first phone call from me in the middle of the Colombian jungle, the scientists at Leicester University waited for Beagle 2 to contact them from the middle of nowhere. If you can read this Beagle , I know it's been a year but please call home. There are some men in white coats in Leicester who would love to hear from you.

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