Memory Lane: The Holmes Life

Alumnus John Holmes MBE (Mining Engineering, 1968) is something of a Nottingham institution having joined BBC Radio Nottingham not long after graduating and subsequently spending nearly 50 years in local radio and BBC Radio 4.

This year has seen him publish his memoirs in the form of his book 'The BBC Holmes Service', so what better time for him to look back on his days on campus which so influenced the rest of his life − including climbing the incinerator chimney on University Park! Over to John...


John Holmes with his pride and joy, a 'rust bucket' Austin 10

I arrived at the university on a National Coal Board Scholarship and as a result had never seen the campus until I turned up to read Mining Engineering in October 1965. Its impact rendered me speechless, I just couldn’t believe that this beautiful location was to be my home for the next three years.

My debut for Dramsoc, 1965 production Andorra by Max Frisch, left to right: John Turner, soldier Clive Hollick now Baron Hollick of Notting Hill, John Dane as Andri, me the journeyman and I’m afraid I have no record of the 5th actor!


The truth is that I didn’t care too much for Engineering and I’d opted for Nottingham because of the nationally famous reparatory company at the Playhouse, which included Judi Dench and John Neville.

Also the city boasted a First Division football club, Forest, and I was used to watching lowly Southend United.

My ambition was to become an actor, so one of my first actions during Freshers’ Week, was to join Dramsoc. I auditioned and was given a part in their autumn production.

My next requirement was transport. I wasn’t in a hall of residence, I was in digs a couple of miles out in Lenton Sands. There, three male students, who had never met, shared a single bedroom and we had a landlady who provided breakfast and meals at weekends. I can’t imagine today’s students coping with that.

Very few students could boast having a car in 1965, but I was determined to have one. The Austin 10 was bought from a 3rd year mining student for £10. It boasted a MG engine and went like a bomb. Although a rust bucket, it proved indestructible and was my pride and joy.

My fellow students Pete Ramsden and Nigel Pearson enjoy a roll-up during an intense moment of triangulation


On my course, the highlight of the year was the Easter surveying camp at Llangollen. A lot of beer was consumed and we also produced a map of the beautiful hilly, surrounding countryside.

When it came to fashion, we weren’t burdened by designer labels, they didn’t exist, instead we bought our ‘trendy’ clothes from Wakefields, a sort of Army Surplus store. I bought a lovely fawn army overcoat for a mere 7/6, under 40p.

As far as for my social life was enjoyed, it centred not on campus, but in the city centre, visiting pubs like The Bell and Salutation, where I first met student nurse Kate who I later married. We also visited the three Boat Clubs on the River Trent, where we could see such acts as Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, The Brian Auger Trinity and Nottingham’s very own, Ten Years After.

The Dungeon Club was a popular venue for Mods, where outside the street was lined with Lambrettas and Vespas, and I must not forget The Beachcomber, which is where I saw the super-group Cream. Very occasionally this venue held all-nighters, but we certainly did not visit the night clubs, they didn’t appeal to us and we couldn’t afford them anyway.

In my room with Kate Melbourne and Marilyn Beck. They were student nurses in real life. Kate married me and we have just celebrated our 53rd wedding anniversary.


But every Saturday night was spent in The Buttery and upstairs in the Ballroom of our beloved Portland Building. Top bands including The Who, The Animals and Spencer Davis Group; featuring a very young Stevie Winwood visited us.

Another much anticipated date on the calendar was Rag Week, with the Rag Ball, Karnival magazine sold for charity and street carnival with floats. My last one was enjoyed with my future wife, Kate.

During final term the 200 feet high (incinerator) chimney was nearing completion, but it still had scaffolding all the way to the top.

It was an irresistable challenge to regularly climb this late on Saturday nights, after The Buttery closed.

Realising it provided a unique opportunity to take photos of the campus, I returned at 5 o’clock, one Sunday morning with my camera. You can see some more of the results in our university archives.

One of John's photos of campus, taken atop the incinerator looking towards the Portland Building, with the 'cow sheds' where the Djanogly Terrace now is.

This Is The BBC Holmes Service

Talking of which, during the Covid lockdown I’ve written my own archive, my autobiography, 'This Is The BBC Holmes Service', 350 pages including university life in the 60s - you can find our more on my website 


Share your Memory Lane story!

Were you a member of a band? Maybe you found love on campus? Whatever your memory, we would love to hear it and maybe it will appear on these pages! Email and put 'Memory Lane' in the subject line.