LONDON (Reuters Life!) - It was a scene replicated across universities worldwide, when a proud father watches his son set out to make his mark, embarking on the studying as well as the partying that characterizes undergraduate life.
Accompanied by his father, Britain’s Prince William arrived at St Andrews University in Scotland dressed like an average first year — jeans, sweater and trainers.
But this was hardly the arrival of an ordinary fresher — police brought traffic to a halt for his entrance and hundreds lined the streets to wish him well in his studies.
I was in my second year at St Andrews University when the future king of England arrived in September 2001. But the small windswept picturesque town along the eastern Scottish coast had long been feeling the full force of the “William effect.”
Within days after it was announced in August 2000 that William would be studying art history at St Andrews, the world’s attention turned to the town of 16,000, better known for its golf courses, clean beaches and historical buildings.
I had got my place at St Andrews in July that year and in one month, questions like “Where exactly is St Andrews?” turned into “So you will you be there at the same time as the prince?”
The university was inundated with calls as prospective students — mostly girls — realized they might have a chance to study alongside William. Figures released at the time showed UK applications surged by 44 percent while overseas applications
— many from the United States — soared by 100 percent.
Property prices and rents jumped, shops, restaurants, cafes and bars opened or reinvented themselves.
Until his arrival, St Andrews was a well-kept secret, steeped in tradition, with ancient buildings and 6,000 students. It hosts gowned student processions and university “family adoptions” which include large amounts of alcohol and shaving foam fights in the main quadrangle.
There are views of the North Sea and a famous golf course where Hollywood stars play. The train from London takes at least five hours to Leuchars, home of an air force base, from where a bus or taxi complete the final leg of the journey into town.
The prince chose St Andrews over more obvious universities like Cambridge and Oxford partly because of his love of Scotland. The Scots, in return, were thrilled to have William studying at their oldest university, founded in 1413.
The rest of the world wanted to know what his private life would be at the university the tabloids had dubbed “St Randies.”
The media agreed with Buckingham Palace to leave William in peace after a photocall on his arrival. However, there was soon one incident when his uncle Prince Edward’s production company ignored the deal and shot footage on campus. Students were warned they could be expelled if they leaked stories about him.
William led a relatively low-profile student life. Often wearing a cap, he walked down the street without being bothered and shopped at the local Tesco supermarket. He was often seen in the library studying or in pubs, meeting friends for drinks.
When a friend’s mother once saw him at the university gym and did a double take, he laughed in a friendly, bashful manner.
But he did attract attention. It would only take minutes after his arrival at a bar and the place would be swarming with girls, all eager to catch his eye. When he played rugby, girls giggled and tried to photograph him. And of course, rumors circulated about who he may be dating.
It is not known exactly when William and Kate Middleton became an item but rumors point to around Christmas 2003.
As a first year, William lived in halls of residence. And it was at St Salvator’s or Sallies, an old hall with a wood-paneled dining room and bedrooms with sea views, where he met Middleton.
Although William missed his Freshers Week, orientation and partying for newcomers, the pair became friendly when they lived doors apart at Sallies. They also studied the same subject.
They shared a flat with two friends at the start of their second year. At the time, Middleton was dating another student. The following year, William, Middleton and their friends moved to a cottage outside town and it is there romance blossomed.
British newspapers cite a charity fashion show, back in 2002, as the moment William’s interest was stirred from one of mere friendship to something more serious.
At the show in the student union, Middleton strutted the catwalk in little more than her underwear as she modeled a see-through knitted dress, originally meant as a skirt. William sat at a front table at the show, where guests, such as myself, cheered on friends modeling after months of rehearsals.
“There was the usual cheering, no big hurrah when she came down the catwalk in that dress as no one really knew who she was,” a friend recalls. “Little did we know how big a deal this moment would become.”
Middleton also kept a low profile. My colleagues at the student newspaper and I stopped to interview her for a feature on Freshers Week one year and she was friendly and chatty.
Middleton was known to be William’s flatmate and good friend, but few would have guessed the prince had met his future wife at “Britain’s top matchmaking university.”
St Andrews prides itself on a long tradition of alumni marrying each other. It says one in 10 students meet their spouses there and at William and Middleton’s 2005 graduation, the principal told graduates they may have met their partners.
I know many such couples, including a friend who will marry an ex-St Andrean in the university chapel in July.
The town is the university’s campus which makes for an intimate atmosphere. It has no nightclubs and students socialize through dinner parties and social club or “society” balls.
The advantage of St Andrews being so small was that William was well protected, but the town could be claustrophobic.
William was reported to have become disillusioned during his studies and Middleton and his father were credited with encouraging him to stay on and switch to studying geography.
St Andrews of course is very proud of its royal match. I visited soon after the royal engagement was announced to help my friend prepare for her wedding.
“I was excited as soon as I heard he would be studying here,” one resident told me. “But to be from the place where he found his royal bride, well’s that’s just magical.”
Editing by Paul Casciato