Maine Attraction

16 Jan 20
Three people standing with lake in background

1975 by John Vickers (Cert. Ed. 1974-77)

'Gap year' was a term not yet heard in 1975. For me, with no overseas travelling experience and straight from school, the announcement that ten places were available for a one-term university exchange programme seemed an excellent opportunity to broaden horizons. In late August 2018 ten of us met at Heathrow, passports in hand.

Our introduction to the USA in New York was a thing of TV scripts: we were held by immigration in a locked room and threatened with expulsion, swiftly followed by witnessing a hold-up at gunpoint in the hotel lobby. Fortunately, the warm welcome, generosity and graciousness of our hosts proved to be a truer reflection of the American spirit.

The University of Maine at Portland Gorham (UMPG, now University of Southern Maine) was split between the small inland town of Gorham—our home for the term—and coastal Portland, eighteen miles away, with shuttle buses available to attend lectures there. The Gorham campus felt so spacious and rural compared to King Alf’s and my top-floor room overlooked the surrounding woodland which, as late summer turned to fall, became a sea of red and gold.

Differences did not end there. There was the pleasant culture shock of the refectory, where the chef (note the title!) produced huge ice carvings to decorate the buffet area, and food of quality and quantity that made us pityingly curious to know what our American counterparts were making of KAC teatime Marmite on thick-sliced bread.

As ever, with cultural differences, not everything worked smoothly. The language barrier created embarrassment when I innocently asked a demure female student if she had a rubber (John Alford similarly transgressed in 1976, asking for one in the University bookshop). There was a brush with fraternity life (a step too far, but worked for some), and a pot-smoking room-mate who sealed the door with wet towels to avoid detection, often also preventing my return.

Academic work proved strange too. A UMPG/KAC administrative hiccup meant that my course credits (another new concept) had to be made up by an odd mix of subjects including organic nomenclature, electrical engineering, sociology and playing squash. An off-the-record word from one of the professors indicated automatic A-grades would be returned and encouraged us to see and experience Maine life rather than spend time on studies. I’m not sure if this was known back at King Alf’s! We were dutiful however, and attended lectures, though it is testament to KAC’s standards that the course content was not taxing. Certainly, computer-assisted learning was new (think reading from a teleprinter rather than screen), as was assessment by multiple choice.

Abiding memories of the time are of the student friends and hospitality; beautiful coastal drives; the vast wilderness of upstate Maine; a weekend spent at a beach house on Cape Cod dunes; sailing off the Maine coast with Professor Dorothy Moore’s husband, Dick; the beauty of the White Mountains; the brilliance of New England fall; a very tiring, cold and dangerous climb of Mount Washington—and all brought to a close with a stunning sunset from the top of the Empire State Building on the eve of departure.

Thank you KAC and UMPG for an unforgettable experience!


1975 Exchange Group: Hilary Bagley (née Heath), Art; Jim Chrismas, Physical Sciences; Elliott Cowton, Physical Sciences; Diane Flynn, Drama; Alex Gear, English; Annie Kenward (née Davies), Drama; Martin Permain, Design and Technology; Dee Sayers (née Coulson), History; Andrew Stevens, History; John Vickers, Physical Sciences.


2019 by Dee Sayers (née Coulson, B. Ed. 1974-1978)

Forty four years later I returned. I had a brief visit 30 years ago, but this time I wanted to see the spectacle that is New England in the fall for one more time, and to spend some time with the friend whose family had entertained me for Thanksgiving all those years ago.

I wasn’t the only one making the journey across the 'pond'. Two other alumni were also in Maine, Linda Johns (née Powell) who had been on the exchange in 1975, and Martin Permain, who like me was in the 75 group. Martin and I met up for lunch, the first time we had seen each other since 1977. As usual with these reunions it was as if we had never lost touch.

The beauty of the countryside and coastline, as well as the friendliness of the people, combined to make the exchange experience a milestone in our lives. It worked the other way too. Through our Facebook group (King Alfred’s College 1970-1978) we are in touch with some of the students from Maine who had taken our places in Winchester, and to whom their experience here was as memorable as ours was there.

I was fortunate enough to meet up with three of them on this trip; Leslie, who had taken part in the first exchange in 1974 and coincidentally was living in Denstone as I was, and Sam and Jay, who were in Winchester while I was in Maine. As you can see from the photo above, Sam and Jay took me up on my offer of new sweatshirts to replace their old ones which sadly had failed to last for four and a half decades!

We were at the start of the exchange programme, which expanded over the years to encompass different destinations, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to take part, for the friends I made and for the memories of a wonderful experience. We all know how fortunate we were to have been afforded this opportunity and a huge thank you must go to King Alfred’s College - as the University of Winchester was then - and to UMPG, now the University of Southern Maine.


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