Patrick Stewart returns to his Yorkshire roots

"FOR a long time my way of getting to sleep was to have a virtual walk through my virtual home in England."

Patrick Stewart, an actor whose successes span more than half a century, was going through a troubled time in his life in California.

He was enjoying tremendous international professional success, starring as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the Star Trek TV series and feature films, the X Men films, and with an enviable reputation as a Shakespearean actor.

But he was unhappy.

"My marriage was unravelling," he said. "I had been filled for several years with a homesickness that kept me awake at night."

Hence the imaginary home in England.

But his life was to change dramatically.

He was visited in London by John Tarrant, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield. The university wanted Patrick Stewart to be its Chancellor, the highest honour a university can offer.

Patrick Stewart was a local lad. He was born in Mirfield. His mother had been a textile weaver. His working class roots in West Yorkshire were deep. He longed to come home.

"John did not know it but he was providing me with the tipping point to leave my life in California, and come home," he said. "The role at the university was absolutely central to that. So when I was asked to take on this role I knew instantly what I would do."

Patrick Stewart was telling his story to a group of academics and business people at the university this month, at a dinner staged during graduation week. He had spent many hours attending events, but displayed an undepleted enthusiasm for his role.

His love of Yorkshire poured out as he spoke.

"This part of northern England remains so solidly and emotionally in my heart," he said. "I was a keen cyclist. I cycled right up Holme Moss to the summit without stopping. I would ride into the Yorkshire Dales, and when I turned back into the industrial West Riding I could not give it words. I know that something hurt when I turned away from those Yorkshire hillsides."

He was born in 1940 into a one-up one-down house, with a partition in the one-up to make bedrooms.

He was very much a working class lad.

At the age of 10 he was due to take his 11-plus, the examination which would decide whether he went to grammar school, or to the less academic secondary modern school.

"My experience of grammar school pupils led me to a decision that, come what may, I was never going to mix with them. I set off to walk to school. Before I arrived there was a left and a right turn. I turned left to the Calder Valley, the river, the canal and the railway line. It was a beautiful May morning. I walked and leaned against a tree. I ate my lunch. When the time was about right I took a circular route home. My mum came home and asked how it had gone. I said it was all right.

"Twenty-four hours after that it came out that I hadn't been to school, that I hadn't taken the 11-plus. So I went to Mirfield secondary modern school.

"I was not to know then but what I had done then was the best move in my life. I would not have excelled at grammar school. I excelled at secondary modern school."

After school he worked briefly as a trainee journalist on the Dewsbury Reporter.

"That was a disaster," he said. "After that I worked at Hudson's furniture store in Dewsbury – the highest-class furniture store in Dewsbury, I might add."

At the age of 17 he left to become an actor.

His acting career has been well-documented, taking in theatre, TV and film, leading to a life in Hollywood, international success, and eventually the unhappiness which left him yearning to return home.

Today he is enjoying life for many reasons, including his role as Chancellor – a job he takes in earnest – and some of the perks of being a world-famous actor.

From 1993 to 2002 there were 172 episodes of Star Trek and four feature films.

"You may find it hard to believe but real astronauts watch Star Trek. Flight crews watch Star Trek," he said. "The military watch Star Trek.

"A month ago I got an astonishing e-mail saying the European space authority was inviting me to take part in a video link with a space station. I thought 'who?'

"These long-term astronauts every two months are given a chance of talking to someone of their choice. A Belgian astronaut had asked for me. So I was connected to mission control in London and there was the captain of the space station."

He watched the crew floating around the space station.

"He went round with a camera, giving me a guided tour. We had 25 minutes. I made the most of my time."

They over-ran.

"After an hour Houston interrupted and said they had other things to do."

He has now been Chancellor of the university for six years and sees the position as another perk of his acting career, one which has provided him with a new facet to his life.

"For half a year the best thing I could say about my life was that I was Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield," he said.

"It gave me a reason to be here. I think there was a bit of suspicion at first. They don't know what you are going to get up to. Then things picked up and took off. By the second year I had done some commercials for the university and applications had risen by 27 per cent. Now I am comfortable with this institution. I have great pride in my role here."

At some Universities the honorary role of Chancellor is mainly a ceremonial one. Not for Patrick Stewart. He is a hands-on Chancellor, part of the team, working in partnership with present Vice-Chancellor Professor Bob Cryan.

He not only uses his fame to promote the university. He teaches master classes for drama students on his increasingly frequent visits to Huddersfield, and has been made a Professor of the Performing Arts – not bad for a lad who dodged his 11-plus.

He speaks of the university's progress with enormous pride.

"The advances we are making here in every area, every department, are astonishing – the ambition of this institution, the quality of its faculties, its staff..." he said.

West Yorkshire was once at the heart of the textile industry. Most of the industry is gone, but some remains, through the nurturing of highly- specialised super-quality niche markets, often with the help of research from the university.

"We are not just looking at the future," he said. "We are looking at the past. The heavy woollen district – that is where I was from. My mum was a weaver. We are tapping into the industry of our communities."

A 17m business school is being developed as the University expands.

Although he sees his role at the university as being largely of a promotional and commercial nature, he said: "I am involved in the day-to- day life of the university. This was one of the glorious opportunities given to me simply because I became an actor."

Patrick Stewart has come home.