I thought I’d express a few thoughts on St. John’s College since several people applying to study at Durham have stumbled across my blog.  My perspective is that of a North American postgrad with kids, so if your position is different that could influence your decision in another direction.

Colleges In General
As the third oldest university in England, Durham is one of three universities in England to have colleges; the others are at OxBridge.  Being a little less high-brow than OxBridge, the colleges here serve a more community based role than an educational role, for the most part.  For those North Americans reading this who don’t know the difference of a college from a university, think of Harry Potter at Hogwarts (the university) who was in Griffendor (the college).  At Durham, colleges serve to provide housing, catering, and social activities (intramural teams, etc.), while at OxBridge teaching is also done through the colleges as well.  The college system here at Durham is one of its main selling points to undergrads since it provides a way to have community in a 13,000+ student school.

The Junior Common Room (JCR) is for the undergrads and is the main body of the college. It’s not a room but an organization for student government, sports teams, etc. The Middle Common Room(MCR) is for the postgrads. And the Senior Common Room (SCR) is for faculty, staff, and others who are affiliated with the college.

Like every other N. American, I had no idea about colleges and defaulted to Ustinov, the postgraduate college.  But when I came to visit before school started a current postgrad recommended that I switch from Ustinov to St. John’s.  So I did.  The okay to switch came easily, but the paperwork end took several months as it filtered through several hands.  I didn’t have to do much work for the change, but I did have to send regular emails to see where things stood.  However, a friend who tried to switch colleges after arriving here was stonewalled.  Apparently, there’s money involved for the colleges and switching from Ustinov means they’re loosing money, and other colleges don’t want to be seen as “sheep stealers”.  So it’s good to decide early and put that on your application. 

St. John’s
St. John’s historically was separate from the University but now serves as a normal college for all different students (John’s Hall) but also serves as an Anglican and Methodist seminary (Cranmer Hall).  (Cranmer Hall is an exception to the rule of no teaching in the colleges at Durham since it is a seminary and teaching does go on within Cranmer.)  With St. John’s theological emphasis, it has a pretty decent theological library.  So that is one of the best reasons for theology students to choose John’s. 

Housing for families is better at Ustinov, or let me say it’s almost non-existent at John’s.  They’ve got St. Margaret’s, which works for couples, but not much for kids.  However, we just let (“rented”) a house in town and are very happy with our accommodations with not much difference in price from Ustinov (other than paying for utilities~£90/mo. for water, gas, electric, phone, & DSL).  Keenan House (only 2 yrs old) with Ustinov is about like living in a 3-4 room dorm, functional but not that fancy.  Although, if you live out-of-college, you are much more likely to not live near other students, b/c most regularly (70%+) default to Ustinov and live in their accommodations.  For kids there is virtually no outdoor play space at Ustinov, so we were keen to get a house with a back garden that the boys could use. See my other thoughts on housing at Ustinov.

In the kids area, St. John’s has a creche (a “nursery” for Americans)–Cramner Creche–that gives reduced prices for St. John’s students.  Our 2 yr old has loved it there so far, and the kids get a lot of individual attention because students from the college volunteer there.  As an added bonus, it seems that it’s the cheapest creche in town.  Spaces for under 2 are usually filled quickly but more slots are usually open for 2+. 

Social stuff…Being in a college with undergrads gives you plenty of opportunity to join in their sports and other stuff.  For those looking for an “English” experience, they’re happy to let you row with them.  And in that English vein, they have regular formals which require robes.  So you get the feel of tradition and not just education.  But I don’t do much at all with this aspect.

St. John’s is also a Bailey college, which means that it is right in the center of the city and very near to the Dept of Theology and Religion and the Cathedral.  There are several other Bailey colleges as well: University (in the Castle), St. Chad’s, Hatfield, and a couple of others I can’t remember. This also makes it convenient to hit the library there or attend other events.

Ustinov does seem to cater to international students a bit better than other colleges, at least they are more sensitive to your issues since lots of postgrads are international.  But once you get settled in, that’s not really an issue with any college.  I found John’s to be helpful as any issues arose.  Most of the theology PhD students I met that were in a college outside Ustinov are in St. John’s, so they are not unaware of international issues.  For instance, they helped us out with a place to stay while we were looking for a house to let. (As a side note, we got here in early August–1 month before primary schools started–and it was a great time to come and settle in. Moving wasn’t super difficult, but it’s easier to deal with the transition issues on a slower pace than arriving just before term allows.)

I think all the way around John’s is the best fit for us. Since the libraries in Durham are not that extensive, having one more convenient option with St. John’s would be the main deciding factor for me.  But if you are interested in just showing up from N. America and having a place to live, then Ustinov may be a better choice.

12 Responses to “Why St. John’s?”

  1. Geordie Ziegler Says:

    What is a “bailey college”? IS that another level of the college system? How does that rank in the Hogwarts analogy?

  2. Ben Says:

    ‘Bailey’ just has to do with location. The two main distinctions at Durham are ‘bailey’ and ‘hill’ colleges. Bailey colleges are just those on the cathedral peninsula–i.e., near the department. Hill colleges are down near the main library/science site, and are, as you expect by the name, up a hill. Sorry for the slow reply.

  3. jonathan Says:

    Hey Ben,

    You may or may not remember me. We met at SBL 2006 and my wife and I visited Durham last March and you walked around town.

    I have recently been accepted to Durham to study with John Barclay. Following the advice of this post, I applied to St. John’s, which I think I’m happy with, but I do have a couple quick questions.

    Is it difficult to find a home to rent and how does the price of renting compare with college housing?

    Is it difficult to find community living apart from the other grad students and if so would leaving at the Ustinov housing remedy this?

    Are only St. John’s student granted access to their theological library?

    I ask all this because my wife and, as of today, 1 month old son, will be moving to Durham in Aug/Sept and I just want to make sure we do the most afforable thing and that they/she has easy access to a commmunity.

    Thanks for your help.

  4. Ben Says:

    I don’t regret St. John’s but Ustinov works quite well for many.

    On housing, it is probably easier to get housing through Ustinov. For those with older children, a house might be preferable. We found it not too difficult to find a house through a real estate (letting) agent when we arrived, but it does add a level of complexity. On the price, it depends where you end up. Ustinov is definitely reasonable, with now worries about utilities.

    On community, it is what you make it. Though again with several couples at Keenan House, it can be easier to bump into others. We just make sure we have a regular number of friends over and we’re more than pleased. One difference for those who live outside of Keenan House, we seem to have a little more contact with locals. But again that depends on working situations.

    You can get into St. John’s library by paying an annual fee. Nijay says it’s somewhere between £20 and £50.

    You can switch colleges, but I believe you have to do it early in the Spring before the autumn term.

    Hope that helps. Looking forward to studying with you.

  5. Jonathan Says:

    Thanks Ben,

    That’s helpful. I’ll probably make the switch to Ustinov, simply to make the move easier.

    My wife and I are eager to get to Durham. See you then.

  6. […] recommended that I switch colleges to St. John’s because of my situation (see here on my Why St. John’s, which also has an intro to the college system) so I wanted to change colleges.  I initiated the […]

  7. Chris Says:

    Allow me to add to this debate as a fellow student ‘on the inside’. I’m currently doing a one-year taught post-graduate programme and belong to Ustinov. I have a wife and a 1 year old daughter.

    First of all, I disagree that Ustinov is better for families than John’s (main point being that Ustinov has accommodation for families and John’s does not – forgive me if I missed the precise point that was made) because I couldn’t get into Dryburn Court (Ustinov’s “family” accommodation which is a 45 minute walk from my classes) since there were no units available. Put simply, Ustinov has “family accommodation” but not nearly enough units to satisfy demand.

    However, I agree with the point made about the difficulties of switching colleges. I tried to change to a different college after I’d found my own private accommodation (i.e. after my attempt to get into Ustinov’s “family accommodation” had failed due to lack of availability) and was later informed that Ustinov College had quickly “denied my request for release.” It appears I am bonded to them.

  8. Ben Says:

    Thanks Chris. I guess my only point about being ‘family friendly’ is that Ustinov has family accommodation and John’s doesn’t. I have heard that Dryburn/Keenan House is quite over subscribed so putting in your application sooner than later is good. Though, I have heard that they have helped a family get a normal house. However, I don’t know if Ustinov promised a place and then couldn’t fulfil it so they helped out.

  9. Adam Baker Says:

    My thanks for your putting so much time, attention, and detail into this site on the whole. As someone who’s considering Durham for work in patristics, history, and theology (Harrison, Louth, and now Ayres make the program seem pretty strong – your thoughts?), your experiences are a veritable gold mine. I’m married, with an almost two-year-old, so knowing more about what it’s like to raise a family at Durham is wonderful.
    Lastly, it’s fun to see that you know Nijay – he and I went to high school together. It’s a small world, indeed.

    1. Ben Says:

      Hi Adam,

      Glad you’ve found this helpful. It’s all the questions we asked, so I thought I should pass along the answers. Yes, I think the historical theology side is quite strong, not forgetting Banev and MacIntosh. I’m not up on other historical theology departments in the UK, but I can’t think of one that would match this one. ‘Tis a small world.

  10. Ann Clinnick Says:


    My husband was just accepted into a one year MA program at Durham, and our son (3 months old) and I will be going along with him in September. We are from California and are trying to decide if living at Keenan House is a good idea based on the cost, and was just curious how large the one bedroom flats are. We just received notice from the Ustinov college that we have been approved for a one bedroom flat, but we don’t want to respond until we know if we should just pay a little more for a larger place. Any help would be much appreciated.

  11. Ben Says:

    Hi Ann,

    Couples that I know of with no kids have been quite satisfied with the 1 bdrm, but I’m not sure how you would fit 3 people. If I remember correctly, it consists of a living/dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. This is a shot in the dark but I’m guessing it’s around 550-600 sq ft. If you need more detail, give Nijay Gupta an email–he lives in Keenan House, but in a 3 bdrm.

    Give us a shout out when you arrive. We’d love to meet you.

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