Inside Manchester freshers' week - or what's left of it

We sent a reporter to hang out with some first-year students

Good morning Millers - and welcome to day five of this very exciting and successful membership launch week. Today’s story is about freshers’ week, and what it’s been like for students. Our reporter Mollie Simpson, who is in her third year at Manchester uni, has written a great piece about what she saw and heard when she went to hang out with some freshers who have just arrived in Manchester, and how it compares to her own experience two years ago.

Before that, a huge thanks to all our new members, who really are the first backers and patrons of the most exciting new project in British journalism right now. We are about to pass 300 members and we’ve now set our sights on 400 - double our original target for the week. You’ve got three days left to use the 20% early-bird discount - just click the button below.

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What’s so exciting about this start is what it signals about the future of The Mill. If we are able to sign up 300 members in our launch week, when no one had even heard of The Mill until this summer, and 99% of people in our target audience still haven’t heard of it, and we haven’t even published a single members-only story yet … it just suggests a tremendous amount of potential for this venture and this way of doing things.

If you’re considering joining, please do jump on board today. And if you know someone who might want to be part of this, do them a favour and alert them before the early-bird discount disappears.

Ok, here’s Mollie, out looking for a good night in the saddest, strangest freshers’ week on record. There’s been a lot of media coverage about whether students are following the rules and speculation about how fast the virus could spread on campuses. But we asked Mollie to answer a different question: what is the experience for freshers in Manchester this week actually like?

From the day I moved into Fallowfield halls for freshers’ week, to the start of the semester two weeks later, I went on 12 nights out in a row: a grime gig at a dilapidated mansion in Rusholme, an incredibly lame traffic light party in Deansgate, a brief pre-drinks gathering outside our block followed by an ill-fated pub crawl through Fallowfield, dancing in a sweaty basement in the Northern Quarter.

I drank rum and coke, Desperados and vodka shots compulsively, yet I remember with immense clarity the Ed Sheeran Shape of You remixes, my coursemates rubbing up against each other when Drake came on, my flatmate crying after too many WKDs because Josh didn’t fancy her, bumping into Super Hans from Peep Show on the Curry Mile, and the night we took a traffic cone and an Asda shopping trolley because “that’s what students do”.

Around 5 am, I always ended up in the flat downstairs for afterparties because I fancied a guy who lived there, smoking cigarettes, laughing at everything he said and sharing super noodles with too much sriracha.

My freshers’ week - before social distancing

I never got in fights but I watched some manifest, sprawling out of clubs onto the pavement, bouncers ready to swing punches at misbehaving rugby lads, girls who got their confidence first in school versus girls who acquired beauty later on with gnawing feelings of inadequacy and self-obsession in equal measure: handbags flying across the table, shots thrown in each other’s faces, tears over who slept with Alberto.

It was utter carnage, desperate, fun, full of awkward cliches, and I loved it. The violence and sex and debauchery excited me. I ended the week with a killer hangover which turned out to be freshers' flu, fifty new Snapchat contacts who I never spoke to again, and a group chat made up of people from different flats and courses who became lifelong friends.

In September 2020, in the time of coronavirus, freshers’ week is a wildly different landscape. There are no clubs or raves, and the pubs - which now shut at 10 pm - are replete with queues that fill whole streets. Instead, Manchester freshers’ week takes shape in the form of large gatherings of first-years mingling outside their halls on Fallowfield campus, sharing crates of Amstel and desperately trying to find their people.

In the era of social distancing, increased fear of freshers' flu and without big nights out, students are stuck in a casual pre-drinks limbo, rendering the atmosphere cautious and a bit stilted. Inevitably, after a few drinks, thresholds start to loosen and students become more tactile with one another. But there’s no music, and no one is getting drunk enough to dance or start fights or kiss someone they’ll regret the next day. Even though it’s only three years later, it feels a lifetime away from the raucous carnage and madness of my freshers’ experience.

Around 20 people gather outside Sycamore Halls, dubbed ‘Seshamore Halls’ in the group chat (a “sesh” is a drug-fuelled gathering), but there’s strictly no going inside. At the weekend, police were called to break up ‘packed’ flat parties, but there’s no sign of any house parties tonight. Security and a police car linger around the corner, and first-years know the university has threatened a curfew - and to throw students who misbehave off their courses.

In another group chat, students express feelings of disappointment, alienation and loneliness. Isaac, 18 from south London, admits: “We’ve been watching Bad Neighbours and Harry Potter in the evenings, so take from that what you will.”

Isaac confirms my suspicions about most freshers fearing fines for flat parties and hosting gatherings inside. He says: “It’s just disappointing because most flats are too scared to host flat parties, and obviously the clubs are closed. Some of the evenings have been fun but it’s not how it should be.”

When I ask how freshers’ week has been overall, three students, Amy, Nabila, and Amira chime in with identical messages, telling me it’s been “complete and utter shite”. 

At Seshamore Halls, I ask a girl for a lighter for my cigarette and we get chatting. A joint is passed around and someone jokes “pass the rona on the left-hand side”. Of nights out, they tell me about long queues at the pub and getting drunk and stoned at a different outside gathering in Fallowfield.

The girl tells me a rumour that one of the flats in this accommodation block has tested positive for the virus before a guy with a North London accent appears yelling: “Tallullah! Why are you always at every party I’m at?” She visibly brightens and they boldly disappear inside to do a line of cocaine together. They don’t reappear.

I start chatting to a group of six girls who are from different households but share similar interests. They talk about the same things I did in my heyday: getting handed free lighters with drug dealers numbers printed on the side and fancying their flatmates.

One girl wanders off to find her flatmate Toby, and quickly the rule of six is reestablished when another girl appears, putting on a fake Welsh accent and calling herself Jennifer. She’s found some good MDMA, apparently; the rest of the girls ignore her. Jennifer, 18 and actually from Coventry, tells me: “My flat is full of like, introverts and engineering students. It’s really lonely there.”

She walked all the way from the city campus, two miles away, to find parties, but she’s still struggling to meet people. I get the strong impression that if you’re not in a sociable, fun household, it’s very difficult to make friends as a fresher this year. Despite this, as she downs the last of her six-pack of Stella, Jennifer tells me she’s not disappointed with her freshers’ week experience, saying - not entirely convincingly - that she’s having “loads of fun!”

At the end of the night, the Seshamore Halls flatmates go back to their rooms in small groups, and some of their peers are left outside, gazing longingly. There’s nowhere else to go, no flat parties to crash, no last orders at the pub, no clubs in the city centre or dirty basements playing Oasis on vinyl, so everyone retreats to bed.

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In case you missed it: Yesterday’s story by David Barnett, about his 26 years working in local newspapers in the North West, is a must-read.

Coming up: We went to visit the beautiful and inspiring ginnel gardens of Levenshulme and spoke to the residents maintaining them.

And a request: If you know a school student in Greater Manchester who wants to be a journalist and would like one of our free memberships, tell them to contact Dani on Twitter. So far we’ve mostly heard from postgraduate journalism students, but we’d love to give out some to school kids too.

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