During my years at Writtle I enriched my mind with modules in pharmacology (boring and difficult), farm diversification (a successful gamble that my lecturers wouldn’t know much more about alpaca farming than I did), soil science (unexpectedly fascinating) and dozens of other subjects with varying degrees of relevance to my later life.

Our lecturers were, on the whole, very good; knowledgeable, dedicated and original. I recall Marcus Roberts opening a lecture on comparative reproductive anatomy by asking a startled audience why he couldn’t have intercourse with a pig.

Accounting was my particular Achilles heel though – 20 years later it is still not my strong suit. Every year I got to know a new crop of first year equine students through having to repeat the accounting module with them.

Our lecturer was John Roberts – the late, lamented JDR – a man with little sympathy for the fact that the demands of my social life sometimes took priority over studying the finer points of bookkeeping.

Generations of Writtle graduates still shudder at the memory of him staring superciliously at them over the top of his glasses. Only with the help of patient grinds from lovely Laura Ashmore did I finally scrape a pass. I have never forgotten it.


Only the more affluent students had their own computers. Most of us made do with writing up assignments by hand (‘swinging a pen’ in Writtle College parlance) and typing up and printing our work in the computer suite when it was ready.

The computer suite, upstairs in the main building, was a relaxed and sociable environment in the early weeks of term where you might come to check your emails or do a little light research on the internet. The back row of computers, where the screens were not visible to anyone but their users, always seemed to be in use by the same few lads and I would rather not know what they were researching.

As the 10-week term wore on and assignment deadlines and exams began to loom, stress levels in the computer rooms would rise palpably. At least three times each term, every computer in the suite would crash simultaneously and the consequent howls of rage and despair could be heard across the 220-hectare college estate. We would all be given extra printing credits by way of compensation but this was precious little comfort when you’d been typing up an assignment due for submission in an hour.

I was tremendously impressed when MacBoy stayed up all night to get a garden design project finished during our first term.

I did not realise then what a regular occurrence “pulling an all-nighter” was going to be for me in the years that lay ahead whenever a deadline took me by surprise or an exam hadn’t been comprehensively prepared for. Handfuls of caffeine tablets kept me focused through those long nights – never mind the fact that my heart would be hammering like a washing machine full of wellies by 5am. With my exam paper handed in or assignment submitted, I would at last take to my bed and sink into oblivion – sleep has never felt so sweet.

Before I left Essex, I consigned three years worth of lecture notes and all my assignments to the attic of Freaks’ Cottage, and I never saw any of them again. I relayed this sad fact to my old drinking buddy Tank when we bumped into each other years later.

He fell away laughing at the notion that any notes of mine would have been of use to me or anyone else anyway.

Much of what is written here appears in fictionalised form in Liam’s novel Sheep May Safely Graze, which is available to purchase online at amazon.ie.

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