Although not as grandiose as Castle’s Great Hall, Hatfield dining hall is still a rather impressive setting in which to eat your cornflakes. Though I initially didn’t want to be catered and shuddered at the thought of dragging myself out of bed during fresher’s week to eat three meals a day in a very public place, I have to admit that the Hogwarts-esque tables helped soften the blow. Now as a third year, settling into my last uni kitchen and, as I write this, boiling myself another batch of pasta, I do look back with a certain fondness on college catering that my anxious fresher self would probably not recognise.
Hatfield had a slightly tyrannical attitude towards mobile phones which, I will now begrudgingly admit, does force you to interact with your peers. While this stressed me out a little early on when I didn’t know anyone to sit next to, ultimately it is true that queuing for a meal and eating together does bring you closer with people you might never have met otherwise. One fateful breakfast was all it took to start a conversation with one of my future best friends.
As term progresses and everyone starts to feel more comfortable together, the dining hall debrief really comes into its own. Converging over breakfast, or perhaps more likely at lunch, to swap stories of last night’s social or to commiserate over all-nighters in the library does make you feel a part of a community. My personal favourite activity was to observe the assortment of hangover outfits, cobbled together and thrown on in an attempt to make the breakfast cut-off time after a particularly lively Wednesday sports night.
The dining hall does become the centre of the community in catered colleges, as it is the one place you are almost guaranteed to visit every day. I believe food and friends are the basic supports to get you through the stress and tiredness that will inevitably hit at some point through the year. On a bad day, a smile and a quick chat with the catering staff and a warm bowl of soup can lift you up again. In the case of my friends, you knew it was a good day when the lasagne (worthy of a group-chat announcement to ensure we got there before they ran out) was on the menu.
There were, of course, low points too. As a lentil-hater (I can’t stand the texture) I did struggle against the catering company’s use of pulses as a cheap, filling protein source. The time that all three meal options contained lentils was a dark day, but I persevered. Brunch for lunch on both Saturday and Sunday also started to wear on me a little, although I know that was other people’s favourite part of college dining. It certainly resulted in some creative food innovation to keep things fun and fresh, with my personal favourite being the stodgy but comforting hash brown bagel.
I am someone who loves to cook and found giving up that independence for catering a little bit difficult (resulting in some interesting experiments with microwave mug cakes and so on) but looking back, it really did add to the first-year experience for me. With so much that is new and difficult to juggle in first year, the structure and the knowledge that you would be served a warm meal by a friendly face is something that was a huge privilege and cannot be taken for granted.
As I look towards graduation and what life will be like after university, I realise I will probably never again experience living with so many of my friends in such close proximity. Right now, we are spread across Durham in different houses, by the end of this academic year we will be all across the country. Even within my third-year house, we rarely eat together as our kitchen doesn’t allow us all to cook at the same time. So, all in all, perhaps it was worth choking down a few lentils for the collective experience of the college dining hall.
Elliot Gosnold reflects fondly on his time at Hild Bede canteen
They say that food is the best way to a man’s heart, and the food at Hild Bede’s canteen certainly found its way into mine. I remember the very first meal I had at the Canteen, sat awkwardly amongst freps desperately trying to ignite conversation between freshers, most of which were mulling over the lives they had recently left behind. This feeling of sudden change was only enhanced by the fact that many would also be leaving homes of immense culinary talent to be met with something that could very well be deemed comparatively subpar. Not me however. That first roast dinner was welcomed with open taste buds. As I scoffed it down, unaware of the gravy contents I had spilt all over myself, I also made my first attempts at befriending newly met fellow freshers. The fact that I remember the food more than the company and conversation on this day either says a lot about how amazing the food was, or a lot about my poor social skills…
The free food for frepping incentive is a testament to the enchanting quality of food available at Hild Bede’s canteen. Many freps offer their services in return for a week long nostalgia trip through the canteen menu, a great way to save money as a liver-out while also revisiting the food from times gone by. It is well known that scent is a powerful trigger for memories, I don’t doubt that taste can sometimes be just as effective at reproducing fond memories, especially when in tandem with the smells and sounds of the canteen. Taken altogether, walking back into the dining hall as a frep must be a sure way to relive first year life, gratefully looking back at everything college had to offer and relishing in it one more time.
Moving beyond the teething stages of college canteen life, which can take anywhere from a week to a few months, I soon settled well into a group of dear friends whom I still love today. Renowned celebrity chef Marco Pierre White has said in the past that it is not so much about the food that you are eating but rather the company and environment you are eating within. Hild Bede is a prime example of this. The view from the large cathedral facing windows captures Hild Bede’s wonderful place in Durham. With the abundance of nature on the grounds, from roaming rabbits, trees that reminded me of the term I was in, to the river situated less than five minutes from the canteen. Everything comes together to facilitate a somewhat magical dining experience that I don’t think I will ever forget. The college canteens, especially Hild Bede’s, serve as just one more little reminder of how lucky we all are to be at Durham.
I really tried to get my money’s worth at Hild Bede, making my best effort to attend every breakfast. Although I’m not a fan of cereal, oats or granola I do enjoy the hot foods that were offered. Croissants, toast and beans were always a sure way to fuel a busy day ahead. The best part however was the coffee and hot chocolate. A simple press of a button provided me with my caffeine fix. Breakfast always saw a few familiar friendly faces consistently attending, most often it was the STEM students who had to seize the day from a nine AM start. While they trudged on to brace the cold morning walk to campus, I made my leisurely stroll back to bed, content in knowing not a penny was wasted on failing to attend meals.
The routine and structure provided by the college canteen is just one of my excuses for achieving better grades in first year. The weekday regiment provided a great structure to study around. The weekend however was a completely different story. Brunch removed the need to get up early. A full English breakfast, also available in veggie and vegan form, fresh juice and hot coffee were all provided to compose the perfect remedy for those of us who were hungover. Questionable outfits, gossip and news from the night before fuelled conversations that freshers week could only dream of emulating. It was in times like these that I knew I had found my place and my people. If it wasn’t for Hild Bede’s perfect catering services, life at university would not be the same. College canteens are a great way to set freshers off on their journey through university, facilitating friendships, new culinary experiences and growth in a warm and nurturing environment.
Illustration by Ayasha Nordiawan