A BIG drop in the number of men training as priests has seen a Roman Catholic college turn to tourism.

Ushaw College at Bearpark, near Durham City, was founded at Douai in France in 1568 but last year celebrated the 200th anniversary of its relocation to the North-East.

Kay Wightman, director of finance and commercial development at Ushaw, said the heritage building with its extensive grounds had catered for more than 300 trainee priests at any one time.

But that number had now fallen to 23, prompting plans to develop the building as a visitor attraction, while remaining as a working seminary.

This year the college will be open for guided group tours, while its impressive refectory will cater for pre-booked meal stops for tours.

Visitors will also be able to stay in the college's 130 rooms and use Ushaw as a base to explore nearby Durham City and the wider region.

"The college has always been very strong on hospitality and this is another form of that," said Ms Wightman.

"It is a hidden gem, which until about 20 years ago was completely closed to the public.

"But we feel that we do indeed have a positive and valuable strategic role to play in handling and looking after groups of visitors."

Ushaw has been catering for conferences but is now moving further down the tourism road to bring in revenue and more fully use the building.

"It is a vast building and to keep it maintained is going to take a lot of money in the future," said Ms Wightman. "If nothing was done, it would close over time if there were not enough funds."

Attractions at the college include its range of chapels, especially the impressive St Cuthbert's Chapel.

Steve Reed, who runs a tourism consultancy in Corbridge in Northumberland, has been working with Ushaw.

He said: "Ushaw is an amazing place and visitors will find it very rewarding.

"Its location is fantastic and has to be seen to be believed.

"It is a very special place which will surprise a lot of people."

Students of Ushaw include: Cardinal Wiseman - First Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster; Cardinals Bourne, Hinsley, Godfrey and Heenan, who all held the same Westminster post; Charles Petre Eyre - Archbishop of Glasgow; Bishop Hugh Lindsay - 10th Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle; Bishop James Chadwick - 2nd Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle; Bishop Alexander Goss - Bishop of Liverpool; Bishop Thomas Grant - Bishop of Southwark; Father John Lingard - Author of The History Of England, From the First Invasion by the Romans to the Accession of Henry VIII; John Furniss - An English Roman Catholic priest, known for his mission to children; Canon Seamus Cunningham, who is to become the 13th Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, is a former spiritual director to students for the priesthood at Ushaw College.