When Brenda Hale (Girton 1963), now president of the Supreme Court, first arrived at room C2, her overriding impression was of what wasn’t there: specifically, the trunk containing all her possessions. “I had sent it ahead on the train from North Yorkshire, five days in advance, but I got here before it did. So for the first few days I didn’t have any luggage …”
When the trunk did finally arrive, it contained not just the necessaries of life but also reminders of Lady Hale’s background: notably, prints of Richmond, near her home village of Scorton, North Yorkshire. This prompts fellow Yorkshire native Maisie Muir, the room’s current occupant, to show off her Yorkshire tea. “I have to have something that says I’m from Yorkshire,” Muir explains. “It’s very important to me. I work in my local pub and it was the talk of Wrenthorpe, my village, when I got into Cambridge. It was a really big deal – massive.”
It’s a story Lady Hale can relate to. “I’m a girl from a small place in North Yorkshire and I knew I was going to be a tiny fish in a great big pond. I had no particular expectations of myself – I was absolutely flabbergasted when I got first-class marks at the end of my first year. And so then I upped my sights about what I might do in the future!”
Not that she spent all her time in the library. Far from it. Although Lady Hale says that, in those days, Girton could be rather quiet. “There was no bar in College! Can you imagine? But I went to lots of parties in town. The real tennis court was a popular place, because the walls were all black. I did a lot of dancing to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But we had to be back at College by midnight.”
Muir is happy to report that Girton has now acquired a bar. “There is a lot going on! I have supervisions and lectures five days a week in town. But then I’ve got to decide whether I’m coming back here for the rest of the day or staying in town. I try not to go back and forth as you have to cycle up Castle Hill.”
And they share not only a pride in their Yorkshire heritage but also the experience of being a minority in their field. Lady Hale was one of just six female undergraduates studying law – and while the numbers of women studying Maths at Cambridge are rising swiftly, Muir is still outnumbered. “I’ve learned that you’ve just got to have confidence in yourself,” says Muir.
Lady Hale agrees. “I encountered many young men from public school backgrounds who felt entitled to good jobs. And I realised that, actually, quite a few of them were no better than me, and, in some cases, not as good as me. And that made me feel: OK, I don’t feel entitled, but I’m going to try. And that turned out to be a very good thing.”
Baroness Hale of Richmond is president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
Interview by Lucy Jolin. Photography by Kat Green.