It squats at the foot of a hill, edged by the A377’s puffing cars and snorting buses. Giant pine trees screen it from view at first, as if nature in her kindness has thrown a veil over something profane. But crunch along the cone-strewn path and lo, there it stands. Bricky and blocky. Unlovely and unloved. Part-1960s correctional facility, part-destitute East German business park. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, for this is Moberly House, Exeter University, where student dreams go to die.
Why then, it might pardonably be asked, would anyone choose to live there? Let me tell you my survivor’s story. It begins a miniature eternity ago, in 2004, when Moberly was one of four houses that made up Duryard: the largest halls of residence on campus. Later demolished for being a superannuated shit-tip, Duryard had a very effective value proposition. It was cheap and cheerful. I mean literally cheerful. Duryard was the happy halls of residence, home to accomplished social animals, not depressed solitaries who spent their days behind drawn blinds listening to Morrissey. It was the affability rather than the affordability that sold me. I signed up.
And it was hard not to feel the excitement that September day, the sun shining and Duryard a-hum with hundreds of arriving freshers, me among them. Three years of intellectual nourishment and sexual adventurism awaited. But first, the unpacking. So, key in hand and parents in tow, I made my way up to Moberly’s first floor and my home for the next year. And this, I’m afraid, is where my story takes a darker turn.
On the outside, Moberly wasn’t and isn’t alluring. Inside, it is forever 1964. My first glimpse, twisting key in lock, made my heart go cold within me. The furniture was mean, the pillows lumpy, the lighting unmistakeably grudging. With a pang I noticed that the desk was pocked with woodworm. If ever a room could be said to resemble a prison cell, mine was that room. Tears suddenly threatened. I felt the need of something to cuddle. When my parents drove off, I did what I presume every newly deposited Moberly inmate does: sat on the bed knuckling my eyes, wandering what tides of fate had brought me to This Place.
Escape was difficult, too. To the many shortcomings of Duryard can be added the fact that it wasn’t notably close to campus. A bastard topography made things worse. Getting to lectures involved a stiff climb up ‘Cardiac Hill,’ a headlong incline that left even the fittest students flushed from exertion. You could always tell who lived in Duryard: we were the ones with sweat moustaches and brows shining like candlewax. Worse still was the fact we had to walk past our bête noire, a building the very mention of which made every Duryarder’s fists ball and eyes spit venom. I refer, of course, to Holland Hall.
Just as to understand Marxism one must first understand capitalism, so it is impossible to understand Moberly without also understanding Holland Hall. Freshly opened in 2004, Holland Hall was the anti-Duryard. Everything Duryard wasn’t, Holland Hall was. It was sleek and glassy and inviting. It had double rooms, it had heated towel rails, it had long dreamy views across the breathtaking Exe Valley. If Exeter had bright young things, Holland Hall – on its shining hilltop perch – was where to find them. Duryarders, by sharpest comparison, were the Outer Dwellers, microbes to be regarded with mingled pity and scorn. Confess to a Holland Hall resident that you lived in Moberly and you might as well have confessed you were a trilobite wallowing in the primeval slime. Since staying at Holland Hall cost a king’s ransom, we assumed each resident was a minor noble. We plebs were bidden inside, occasionally – a royal summons to scale the social steps and join the elite – but only for a day, or perhaps if we were lucky, a night.
And yet there existed a defiance among we incarcerees. True, Duryard wasn’t likely to grace the Sunday Times ‘Style’ section, and no one could deny Holland Hall boasted shinier fittings and fewer mould spores, but Moberly life wasn’t entirely without its consolations. The claims, for instance, made about its superior social life were quite true. We had the run of place: there were no locked doors to prevent inter-floor wandering, letting us schmooze and banter as the humour took us. Moberly was ‘open.’ Not so in maximum-security Holland Hall, whose security doors and institutional paranoia were a continual bitter insult to the human spirit. The much-vaunted luxury of the place? Nothing but a gilded cage. (So, tearfully, we told ourselves.)
For all that, it is hardly a surprise that thirteen years on, Holland Hall still stands. The real shock is that Moberly – raddled, rattling old Moberly – stands too. It dodged the wrecking ball during the 2007 Bonfire of Duryard thanks only to a quirk of geography: as the southernmost house, it was best able to be ‘assimilated’ by the newly built Birks Grange Village. Ever since, as the rest of campus was renovated out of recognition, it has stood firm, entirely unchanged, preserved as if in a 1960s peat bog. And it sees active service, too. Although the house fell out of use in 2012/13, Exeter dusted it down again the following year owing to a ‘high number of academic applications.’ And those students have to live somewhere, right?
In 2017, students still live in Moberly, but they won’t for much longer. Plans are afoot to replace the immortal house with, sadly, a ‘modern development.’ The only surprise here is that it took so long. You can’t knock somewhere like Moberly into shape; you can only knock it down and replace it. But it’s a shame nevertheless. I will always remember you Moberly, if not always fondly, and here’s hoping Moberly Mk II retains something of your cheerfulness and humbleness and indomitable social spirit. You can keep the mould, though.