Nothing quite prepares you for the scale and grandeur of Ushaw College as you turn off the A167 near Neville’s Cross and head out into the Durham countryside. Here there are villages and farms and, more than likely, traces of forgotten collieries.
But Ushaw College, if you have never visited and know little about the place, is a surprise. A big surprise.
Up the track and behind the trees is what used to be the foremost Catholic college – or seminary – in England, a place where education and religion went hand in hand.
Some 400 students were in attendance up until the 1950s and for a further half a century it was turning out priests to serve the Catholic Church.
It was a school, too, both junior and secondary, and for the first-time visitor it makes for a curious mix – calculated high church magnificance with a lingering trace of shrill and inky-fingered endeavour.
The school closed in 1972 but the book published in 2008 to celebrate Ushaw College’s 200th anniversary has photos to prove it was very much a going concern.
Some of them show boys sitting in ranks of wooden desks below the Master at his lectern and a crucifix on the wall; others depict lighter moments – lads playing chess or snooker, or in the uniform of the Ushaw College (8th Durham) Scout Troop.
The existence of the St Cuthbert’s Society, comprising Ushaw old boys, attests that many people look back on their time here with affection. A sceptic might suggest that a sense of unity can grow out of adversity – for there are some things in that book that look a bit scary in the softer light of the 21st Century.
There are photos of boys digging the snow from the grounds. Another shows a swimming pool which looks more ‘character building’ than ‘holiday brochure’.
There is talk in the book of cross country running and the admission that it was “not the most popular of Ushaw’s pastimes”. On the bright side, inclement weather brought with it “the possibility of a frozen pond and the prospect of skating.” Listen hard and you can still hear the chattering of teeth – maybe.
One of the most fascinating aspects of an Ushaw schooling – to me, at least – is the games that were critical within the bounds of the college but nowhere else. Eton has its wall game and Ushaw had cat, a game played by two teams of seven and involving a ring marked out in an open field, a hefty stick and a ball.
A couple of surviving sticks lie beside the scale model of Ushaw College which shows the size and complexity of the place – and also the arched ‘Ball Places’ where handball was played.
These games and others, it is suggested, came from Douai, in northern France, where English Catholic priests and laymen were trained until the French Revolution prompted a return across the Channel. Douai College had been founded in 1568 to avoid the persecution of Catholics in England during the reign of Elizabeth I.
It is just one facet of an exotic and fascinating history that this extraordinary corner of County Durham, full of imposing architecture and religious imagery, is the successor to an institution located in what was once the Spanish Netherlands.
But a new and challenging era has opened up for Ushaw College. Its last seminarians, 25 of them, departed in 2011 and that was the end of Ushaw’s role as a catholic seminary.
“There were four seminars in England and Wales and there are two in Rome and one in Spain,” explains Monsignor John Marsland who became the latest president of Ushaw College in 2008.
“That’s a lot of space and they’re all big places and are all looking to be filled. From a provision point of view, there were too many places for not enough students. There are all sorts of reasons as to why there are fewer. For one thing, the process of selection has changed.”
Monsignor Marsland and his core staff remain to look after the premises and fashion a new purpose.
There are strong links with Durham University. The newest wing of Ushaw is being used by the Business School and there are also postgraduate students from Josephine Butler College in residence.
But Ushaw College is also wooing the public through its cultural engagement programme. That’s why I am here.
Actually, that is why I am here for the second time. Roger Kelly, who chairs Ushaw’s cultural engagement group, showed me round in the autumn when I was so overwhelmed by the cultural riches before me that I needed a second tour to get things in perspective.
Now the grounds are full of tulips, planted with a grant from the Elspeth Thompson Bursary Fund, and some of the buildings, under a blue sky, are less reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.
Monsignor Marsland says there are 13 chapels at Ushaw. Seemingly they are tucked round every corner with tiled corridors in between
“Really it dates from the time with priests said Mass on their own and didn’t co-celebrate. There were 44 priests on the staff so they had to have enough altars.”
The St Cuthbert’s Chapel is something else, the crowning glory. It is an ornate reminder, suggests Roger Kelly, of the way the Catholic Church presented itself before the Second Vatican Council ordered a plainer approach to worship in the 1960s.
This building, completed in 1844, replaced an earlier chapel by the famous architect Augustus Pugin which was dismantled to accommodate the numbers flocking to Ushaw.
It shimmers and shines and, at the organ, Caroline Hodgson, organist of St Mark’s Church, Darlington, is preparing for the public recital she will give on May 16 at 2.30pm.
Much of Ushaw is arranged around a Georgian quadrangle, reflecting the ambition of the fifth president, Monsignor Charles Newsham, to create a Catholic university (Catholics in his day couldn’t study at Oxford, Cambridge or Durham).
Everywhere are paintings, statues and examples of fine craftsmanship. Sunlight filters through stained glass onto ornately tiled floors and brings out the honey glow of carved wood. Pale marble statues by Karl Hoffman strike eternal poses of religious devotion – a St Joseph among them and a masterly Virgin and Child.
This is also the home of the Westminster Vestment, a 16th Century religious garment said to have been worn in Westminster Abbey before the Protestant Reformation and given to Ushaw in 1867.
The vestment, believed to have been from the wardrobe of Richard III, was worn recently by Cardinal Vincent Nichols when he celebrated Mass for the repose of the king’s soul in Leicester, where his remains were discovered beneath a carpark in 2012.
We go to the library – one of three – where more than 50,000 books reside. There are Latin tomes but also more recent volumes which, until recently, were used for study by the seminarians. It’s a bibliophile’s paradise.
Peter Seed, estates manager, quietly puts in front of me a first edition of cricketer WG Grace’s autobiography. It’s a beautiful-looking book and another reminder that religious study didn’t squeeze out secular pursuits.
Peter, who first worked at Ushaw in 1982, is the fifth generation of his family to do so, dating back to 1849. He claims to know most of the nooks and crannies. “This was my playground as a child. It was where I would come on Saturday mornings from the age of five.”
Understandably he feels great affection for the place. It pleases him that the cultural engagement programme is bringing members of the public into Ushaw College, many of them for the first time.
“The place has always been used by groups occasionally but that seems to be increasing at the moment as more people realise it’s an option.
“The cultural engagament programme includes opportunities for people to come and visit, to enjoy music, to pray or to have a look at various collections of items here that are part of the Catholic heritage.”
Roger Kelly, who was chief executive of Gateshead Council until his retirement in 2012, hopes the programme of events scheduled for Ushaw College is just the start. The new May to July programme includes concerts by the resident Ushaw String Quartet, led by Ed Cross, the Tyneside Chamber Orchestra, Capella Novocastriensis, Royal Northern Sinfonia and Kathryn Tickell and The Side.
Along with organ recitals, lectures and days dedicated to painting and prayer and to Vivaldi’s Gloria are an Ushaw Ceilidh, an Ushaw Folk Night and a classical guitar recital by Jonathan Parkin.
An exhibition of work by renowned Durham sculptor Fenwick Lawson, who specialises in monumental religious subjects, will open at Ushaw College on May 30.
At an Ushaw concert this Saturday (May 9, 2.30pm) soprano Elizabeth Roberts will sing settings of English poetry and recorder player Jane Shuttleworth will perform works by 20th Century composers.
All will do well not to be upstaged by their surroundings.
If you just want to look round and admire the art, the architecture and the tulips, Ushaw College is open to the public on Saturday afternoons (12-5pm) now and throughout the summer. For full details of the cultural programme and directions, go to www.ushaw.org. For ticketed events, contact the Gala Theatre, Durham, on www.galadurham.co.uk or tel. 03000 266600.