Why returning to your university town makes for a bittersweet weekend break

Waiting for our mains to arrive at Harry’s restaurant, I feel like a kid at the grown-ups’ table. 

I take a look slyly about the place, all exposed brick walls, hefty wooden tables and leather banquettes, thinking, “I’m not supposed to be here! But they don’t know!”

I accidentally catch the waitress’s eye; she simply smiles at me, as if it’s no big deal. Chuh. Well, she’s wrong about that.

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Harry’s is something of an institution in Exeter, the Devonshire city where we’re staying for the weekend. The family-run restaurant, open for more than 25 years and housed in a striking, gothic-style building dating back to 1883, serves up generous dishes using mainly seasonal and locally sourced produce.

It’s laid-back with an upmarket price-tag – the kind of restaurant I wouldn’t think twice about frequenting in London. But here, I feel thrillingly out of place, like I could be asked to leave at any moment. 

Exeter was my university town, and this was my first time back since I graduated more than a decade ago. It’s the strangest feeling to walk along streets I once knew intimately but now barely recognise; it’s an even stranger feeling to be sitting in the restaurant that was once completely out of reach.

Harry’s was always the fanciest joint in town, you see. The kind of place you could only ever afford if your parents were footing the bill. I never once dined here in three years, despite the fact a good friend of mine was a waitress (although I might have peered wistfully in through the window a few times).

Hence the first thing on my Exeter to-do list was to finally make my Harry’s debut. It lives up to the hype in my head: I think I enjoy the flavour-bursting tuna steak with chimichurri butter and sautéed potatoes, followed up by a gut-busting sticky toffee pudding, just as much as 21-year-old me would have done. But I can’t shake the feeling it’s too good for the likes of me.

The Old Firehouse is more my scene. This is the legendary bar we used to prop up. Spread over three bunting-strewn floors, its exposed beams and rustic wood floors lit purely by candlelight. We’d all squeeze around long wooden tables and sink the infamous house special, a £5 bottle of wine. It was so cheap that a friend of mine once up-ended an entire bottle of the stuff over my head as a “joke”… which was even funnier when he got kicked out. I’m half hoping they still sell it; and they do, as it turns out, though the price has jumped up to £9.95 a bottle. That’s inflation for you. 

“The red is just about drinkable”, the barmaid says chirpily, and I believe her, but am won over by an entire wall of local ciders instead.

Most of my haunts were nighttime-only places, although I’m gratified to see they still exist by daylight: the Cavern, where we’d throw ourselves around the dimly lit cellar to Indie music on Saturdays (while making eyes at the prettily pierced, skinny jean-wearing emo guys); Timepiece, where we’d ogle the sports club boys in their fitted chinos, crisp shirts and ties every Wednesday (before inevitably going home alone with a burger bought from the stall outside). I’m thrown to see that Riva, a quayside club that notably went through a phase of selling a double vodka and godawful Red Bull-equivalent called “Kick!” or “Shark!” or somesuch for £1, has reverted to a Bavarian beerhouse dominated by huge screens showing sports.

But the quay itself is just as charming, its cobblestoned waterfront home to little shops crammed with knick-knacks and antiques. I vaguely remember one of them used to have a huge section dedicated to wonderful local artist Simon Drew, famed for his drawings of animals accompanied by puns – and it still does! I cling on to the familiarity like a lifebelt, while all around me the seas of change seem increasingly choppy and strange.

The town centre, for a start. I just… can’t really remember any of it. At all. Was I that drunk for three years? And the old-man pub I used to work at, where the owner was a leering pervert who tried to get his employees – all female students with a C+ bra size – drunk every shift, was now a demure-looking gastro pub. 

I remember Gandy Street, which is reassuringly similar, with its jewel-toned bunting fluttering prettily in the breeze amid an array of independent shops. Rumour always had it that J K Rowing, also a former Exeter undergrad, based Diagon Alley on this eclectic row of stores (though I’m pretty sure she’s never confirmed this idea). We duck into a vintage shop and I try to forget the past while trying on a succession of chunky-knit, ugly-as-sin jumpers.

Finally, we troop over to the Alexander Building, the place where I spent the majority of my three years studying drama (and finally realising I would never make it as an actress). I stare up at it expectantly, waiting to feel something – anything – but I don’t. Nada. It’s just a building. The place that would transport me to whole other worlds three times a week, where I’d don my drama blacks and become an entirely different person for a brief while, only really exists in my memory.

We head over the road to celebrate the anti-climax at The Imperial – The “Impy”, as we used to call it – the Wetherspoons that was practically a second home from 2005-2008. Sitting in the really quite impressive orangery, a high-ceilinged masterpiece of a room with gargantuan floor to ceiling windows, I recall how, in the summer – “and the summers were endless back then!” – we would all spill out onto the grass, drinks in hand. I remember, too, the afternoons whiled away at the outdoor pool on St Luke’s campus; and my 21st birthday, when, still sozzled from the night before, I was half carried to a pirate-themed café on the quay for an afternoon tea I could barely stomach. There were walks along the River Exe for a lunchtime pint at Double Locks, and seaside trips to Exmouth, jumping the waves and eating scorching fish and chips under the sizzling sun.

“It sounds like a lovely place,” notes my partner.

“It was.”

And it still is, actually, especially for a grown-up weekend break: the river, the cathedral, the gently rolling green hills that surround the city. Even the hotel choices have gone upmarket since I was last here, as our stay at chic boutique Hotel Du Vin can attest.

But it isn’t the same, going back. Of course it’s not. Because, as a student, you don’t really fall in love with your university town – you fall in love with the independence it gives you, the freedom of living away from home, finding lifelong friends, getting drunk on a weeknight, discovering art, and plays, and films, and writers you’re passionate about. And all of it with no responsibilities. You fall in love with a carefree life that can never be recaptured – not even by eating at the poshest place in town.

I’m glad I saw it again. But next time – and I’m sure there’ll be a next time – I’ll look forward, not back. I’ll try to make some new Exeter memories; although I may still be tempted by that £9.95 bottle of wine.

Travel essentials

Hotel Du Vin offers doubles from £80, room only.  

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