Today, the head of the Catholic church is among 200 guests at Ushaw College to commemorate the new visitor attraction’s 450th anniversary. Despite its long history, the place is barely known outside its four immaculate walls. Chris Lloyd tells its secluded story

USHAW COLLEGE is a hidden gem, surrounded by seclusion. It is tucked away in mature countryside about five miles west of Durham city, hidden by physical barriers of trees, walls and gatehouses which are a response to the centuries of persecution endured by Catholics.

But also there are mental barriers, particularly among local people, that keep it secluded.

“Ushaw, Esh, Langley Park have had it ingrained in them that they are not allowed to come here,” says operations director Peter Seed. “It’s as if there’s a local bubble around us.”

But Ushaw is now trying to burst that bubble, positively throwing its centuries-old doors open to the public, with a programme of events leading up to Christmas, starting today at midday with a visit from the head of the Catholic church in Britain, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, to celebrate the college’s 450th anniversary.

Ushaw was effectively formed in 1568, when Queen Elizabeth I outlawed traditional Roman Catholicism. Those caught practising the old religion could be fined, imprisoned or even sentenced to the most horrible death.

Despite all this, some people secretly still followed their faith – and they needed priests to help them.

So exactly 450 years ago, Lancashire priest William Allen opened a college to train young Englishmen in the Flanders town of Douai, safely away from the long arm of Elizabeth’s law. Once trained, the priests quietly slipped back into the country to minister to worshippers. By the time Elizabeth died in 1603, Douai had sent over about 500 priests.

But it was a dangerous business. From 1577 to 1680, 158 Douai priests were executed, the last being Thomas Thwing who was hung, drawn and quartered at York for the treasonable offence of being a Catholic on October 23, 1680.

The unfortunate Thomas was the last to die because attitudes in Britain to Catholics gradually softened, but when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the Douai students suddenly found themselves victims of a new kind of persecution: they were persecuted for being English. Their property was ceased and they were threatened with imprisonment, so they considered they would be safer in their native land and fled back over the channel.

One group of students settled in Hertfordshire, but those who hailed from the north wanted to be based nearer home and so, led by Bishop William Gibson, they scoured the northern counties. They rested briefly at Tudhoe Academy, near Spennymoor, and Pontop Hall, near Stanley, before finding a degree of permanence at Crook Hall, near Consett.

But it was far from ideal for a college, and Bp Gibson went seeking a site for a newbuild. He settled on an isolated hilltop called Ushaw – it gets its name from Old English, a “wulf’s shaw, or wood”, and while there weren’t many wolves still around 200 years ago, Ushaw was still isolated before the 19th Century mining settlements of places like Bearpark and Langley Park grew up.

The Ushaw landowner, Sir Edward Smythe, of Esh, had Catholic sympathies, and his main seat was in Shropshire, so he wasn’t around when the £4,590 deal was sealed to receive any criticism.

In the 1790s, Catholicism might have been tolerated but it was still viewed by the authorities with suspicion, and so the new college was designed to look uncontroversially like a Georgian country house so that it didn’t attract too much unwanted attention. Its chapel, therefore, was undemonstratively tucked away at the back.

On July 19, 1808, the 52 students walked from Crook Hall to their new abode. Not that they were made warmly welcome. They tried growing their own foodstuffs, and when the grain they sent to the miller at Bearpark came back as something very ungrainlike, they built their own windmill.

But attitudes were changing. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of Ushaw is the way that its buildings tell the story of those changing attitudes. The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 formally ended the centuries of discrimination, and Ushaw responded by making a big, in-yer-face statement of the Catholics’ arrival.

With student numbers growing, in 1844, the college’s fifth president, Monsignor Charles Newsham, employed Augustus Pugin – the hottest architect in the country after his success with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben in the fashionable mock Gothic style – to build a proper place of worship on the front of the building.

Pugin didn’t disappoint, creating a remarkably grand, richly decorated but ultimately peaceful chapel. He also did other works, such as turning the refectory, where the boys ate in a “low and gloomy room”, into an opulent, elegant dining hall, which is today Divines café that serves a very fine piece of chocolate cake.

The college continued to expand with a junior school being added, so that boys as young as 11 could begin their education there, many of them not emerging back into the wider world until they were 24 and a newly qualified priest, having spent their last six years studying philosophy and theology. They slept in cubicles in their dormitories, and were woken for prayers at 6.15am and didn’t finish their day’s studies until prayers again at 10.15pm.

But there was play as well. One of the first things a visitor to Ushaw spots is a long, castellated wall known as The Bounds. This curiosity has strange caverns within it which are “ball places” where students played their own versions of handball or “keeping up” – a game involving a homemade golfball and a homemade spatula-ended stick called a “battledore”.

On the wide field in front of the wall, they played “cat” – a game brought over from Douai which involved a circular pitch, a homemade ball and more homemade sticks which the students fashioned for themselves out of a block of ash. Cat was a version of rounders or baseball, although if the seven-man striking team managed to complete two rounders they then tried to hit the ball far enough so they could all cross sticks in the middle of the circle to win a bonus point.

Another curiosity of Ushaw is that it has 14 chapels. There were scores of trainee priests at the college, each of whom had to say mass everyday. In the early morning they would queue in the cloister until a chapel became free so they could get their service out of the way.

By the early 1880s, the student population was nearly 500 and so Pugin’s main 140-seat chapel was too small. The college grasped the nettle, demolished it and got Newcastle architects Archibald Dunn and Edward Hansom to rebuild it on a bigger scale using all of Pugin’s original fixtures, fittings, tracery and windows. They did it so immaculately that they retained all of his glory and drama but also the sense of awe-inspiring reverence.

The chapel, dedicated to St Cuthbert’s, is now the highlight of any visit to Ushaw, which today is fighting to find its future.

As the call for Catholic priests diminished after the war, its numbers gradually fell until the last students left in 2011 and it closed. Ushaw’s future was desperately uncertain, but rather than be sold off, the decision was taken to see if it could sustain itself without students.

Durham University has taken over its east wing – a rather jarring four-storey 1960s extension – and it has become the headquarters of the Durham Music Service and so home to 15,000 musical instruments. Start-up businesses – a shoemaker, a life coach, a book illustrator, an architect – have moved in, and its main historic buildings are being opened as a visitor attraction with a series of musical and cultural events held in either the splendour of the original chapel or amid the glory of Pugin’s masterpiece.

Plus, in the refectory, there’s the café serving divine chocolate cake.

In 2014, Ushaw attracted 7,000 visitors, and yet in 2018, it is set to pass 40,000, and it has just received a £160,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant to see what more can be made of its offer. For instance, it sits in acres of parkland, with formal gardens out the front and countryside all around which could be opened up to walkers, cyclists and horseriders.

“The words I most here from visitors is ‘I never knew this was here’,” says Peter Seed. “I never want to hear that again. One of the worst things about Ushaw is that it is a hidden gem – we don’t want it to be hidden, we want it to be a gem that everyone knows about and comes to visit and enjoy.”

  • For further information about events at Ushaw go to or call 0191-373-8500.