How Big Freeze of 1963 put a spanner in the works for University of East Anglia

UEA building work starts. Date: Feb 1963. Photo: Feilden & Mawson

UEA building work starts. Date: Feb 1963. Photo: Feilden & Mawson - Credit: Feilden & Mawson

Recent celebrations of the University of East Anglia's 50th anniversary have brought back a flood of memories for the bosses of Norwich-based architects Feilden+Mawson.

UEA building work starts. Date: Feb 1963. Photo: Feilden & Mawson

UEA building work starts. Date: Feb 1963. Photo: Feilden & Mawson - Credit: Feilden & Mawson

Fifty years ago today the UEA welcomed its first students in to its university village, a temporary campus to house its first 87 undergraduates while the permanent campus was developed.

Construction of the original UEA village in 1963.

Construction of the original UEA village in 1963. - Credit: Submitted - October 2013

The construction of the village has gone down in legend for Feilden+Mawson, after having to battle against the clock and one of the harshest winters in living memory to get the UEA village ready in time. The village was a nine-acre bare field site off Earlham Road, on the opposite side to Earlham Hall, but Feilden+Mawson had to battle against the Big Freeze of 1963 to complete the work.

Construction of the original UEA village in 1963.

Construction of the original UEA village in 1963. - Credit: Submitted - October 2013

Norfolk and Suffolk saw its rivers frozen, ice floes at sea and deep snow drifts as temperatures plummeted in early 1963. Roads were blocked as 60mph winds not only took snow off fields, but top soil as well, leaving some communities cut off.

Ice skating championships were held at Oulton Broad over a mile-long course for the first time since 1954, and late January temperatures were recorded as low as -19C at Santon Downham and -15C at Mildenhall.


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Founding partner of Feilden+Mawson, David Mawson, who set up the firm with Sir Bernard Feilden and was partner in charge of the project, recalls: 'The ground was so hard one of the bulldozers broke its blade. It was an extremely difficult time. We kept going, and we kept up to schedule.

'It was the most exhilarating period of my whole career – the speed at which everything moved. We were virtually eating and sleeping the project. Every day you would see another building half up or finished which wasn't there the day before.'

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The university village was constructed of pre-fabricated timber sections, set onto concrete slab footings.

It included faculties for the sciences and humanities departments as well as a cafeteria, refectory and library, and nearby Earlham Lodge was converted from a private house into a senior common room for academic staff.

David Luckhurst, a newly appointed 28-year-old architect at Feilden+Mawson in 1963, designed and ran the project on site.

Mr Luckhurst said: 'This was the most unusual, breathless and exciting project of my career. I had just enough experience to respond to the varied challenges with terrific support from those around me.'

The temporary campus was used for 15 years, with each of the faculties gradually moving across the road into the main campus. A popular music venue called The Barn remained an active nightspot until the mid-1980s.

One of Feilden+Mawson's original UEA designs is still around to see today – the iconic UEA Steps known as The Square on the main campus.

A display of pictures and newspaper cuttings by Feilden+Mawson went on show at the UEA as part of its 50th anniversary festival on Saturday, September 28.

Feilden+Mawson partner Philip Bodie has worked on modern-day design projects for the UEA and is president of the Norfolk Association of Architects. He said: 'Feilden+Mawson had such a pivotal role in bringing the original temporary university village to life. It's been a pleasure to go through our archives and remind ourselves of the incredible achievement of realising a campus for the UEA's first students.

'Once Feilden+Mawson had been commissioned, there was just nine months to get the university village up and running. It was a huge challenge.'

Today, Feilden+Mawson, which has offices in Norwich, Cambridge, London and Prague, is on the UEA Framework of preferred specialist suppliers and has played its part in several modernisation and refurbishment projects on campus.

'We have carried out laboratory refurbishments and other projects at the teaching wall,' Mr Bodie added. 'This meant the rationalisation of well-worn, mid-20th century spaces.

'We worked with the estates department to turn them into modern, highly efficient laboratory spaces. We've had excellent feedback from both students and teaching staff which is extremely satisfying.

'In the 60s and 70s, Feilden+Mawson designed the registry, chaplaincy centre and completed Lasdun's teaching wall. More recently we refurbished and redecorated Blend Café, the bright and energetic café next to The Square.'

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