Today, the head of the Catholic church is among 200 guests at Ushaw College to commemorate the new visitor attraction’s 450th anniversary. Here Chris Lloyd picks out some of the treasures that can be found on the site.

1. St Cuthbert’s Chapel

ORIGINALLY designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, the architect who gave the country Big Ben, the chapel is the stunning centrepiece of Ushaw. For all its rich Gothic details and decorations, it retains an awe-inspiring hush. Pugin completed it in 1847, shortly before his death at the age of 40, and it was rebuilt and enlarged in the 1880s.

2. Lady Chapel

USHAW aficionados say the smaller chapel, with intricate stencilling on the walls and its delicate sage green and gold colour scheme, is totally true to Pugin’s Gothic vision – the gaslights that lit St Cuthbert’s Chapel were powered by gas generated from coal in the college grounds and burned with black fumes that destroyed the stencilling on the chapel ceiling.

3. St Cuthbert’s Ring

USHAW has a remarkable collection of relics of saints, including a “phial of miraculously liquefying blood of St Francis of Paola”. The most important is a 13th Century gold ring, with a large uncut sapphire, left by a wealthy pilgrim at St Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral. At the time of the Reformation, when Henry VIII’s men were removing everything of value, the ring was spirited away for safe-keeping – some versions of the story say that it was taken from St Cuthbert’s undecayed finger in his tomb – and ended up in a Catholic convent in Paris. In the 1850s, with Ushaw established, it was felt appropriate that the relic should return to County Durham.

4. The Nuremburg Chronicle

THE Ushaw library is one of its great treasures, containing 40,000 books, some of which were in Durham Cathedral Priory before it was dissolved in 1539. One of those is the chronicle, published in Nuremburg in 1493, which is the most complex book published in the 15th Century as it was one of the first to combine pictures and text. It was the 15th Century equivalent of Wikipedia and this vast undertaking was very expensive to research, illustrate and print. But as soon as it came out, unscrupulous printers copied it and knocked out their own cheap versions – Ushaw library has a pirate copy produced in Augsburg in Germany in 1497.

5. A True, Sincere and Modest Defence of English Catholics that suffer for their faith both at home and abrode against a false, seditious and slanderous libel, by William Allen

THE lengthy title belies a remarkable tale. It was written in 1584 by the founder of Douai after Elizabeth I had started executing Catholics. It was a passionate defence of his faith and of the young men he was educating and secretly sending back to Britain as priests. Ushaw’s copy, amazingly, is signed and annotated by Richard Topcliffe, who was Elizabeth’s chief persecutor and torturer of Catholics. Beneath the title, he has clarified the authorship of the book by writing: “Compiled by that monsterous trator Doctor Allen”.

6. Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall’s chasuble

CUTHBERT TUNSTALL was the last Catholic bishop of Durham, and it is believed he wore this chasuble, made around 1470, when conducting mass. Tunstall was born near Hornby Castle, near Richmond, and started out as a kitchen boy. He rose to become a churchman and an astute diplomat for Henry VII. Widely respected, he maintained his role under Henry VIII, despite having misgivings about the king’s change of religion – he was the defence counsel for Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in the divorce proceedings. When Elizabeth I came to the throne, she kept Tunstall under house arrest in Lambeth Palace, where he died, aged 84.

7. Bronze sundial

THIS was made in 1732 by astronomer Thomas Wright (1711-86), of Byers Green, whose observatory still towers over the south Durham village of Westerton. Wright made it while he was an apprentice instrument maker in London. The dial was presented to the Bishop of Porto in Portugal and from him went into the Catholic English College in Lisbon. When it closed in 1973, the dial came home to County Durham.

8. Pugin’s brass lectern

FRANCIS SLOANE was one of the first students at Ushaw in 1808, and when his father’s business failed, the college paid his fees. After leaving, he became a tutor to a Russian count’s children in Florence. He was given control of the count’s copper mines in Volterra in Russia and became very rich. He provided the metal from which Pugin fashioned the lectern for a prominent position in St Cuthbert’s Chapel. The lectern was displayed at the 1851 Great Exhibition as one of the great wonders of the day.

9. Cat sticks

DOTTED around the corridors of Ushaw are sticks carved by students to play the centuries-old college game of cat, which was a version of rounders or baseball. The sticks are a cross between a golf club and a mallet, and would be wielded one handed when the student was on the striking hole. The circular cat pitch, and its seven bases, can still be seen on the field.

10. Volunteers and chocolate cake

“OUR volunteers are the most surprising bunch of people, who just turn up, keep the place running, and love it,” says operations director Peter Seed. “They really get what it is all about.” Add to that whoever makes the cake in Divines café, beautifully moist with a thick, sticky chocolate top, served in the Gothic grandeur of Pugin’s refectory – all are treasures of Ushaw.