View Full Version : Archived: Ushaw College Junior Seminary, Durham – Jan ‘10

14-02-2010, 09:14 PM
Visited with Pincheck on the road north after the forum meet in Leeds: we were lucky, the high pressure weather lasted all weekend, and we took advantage of golden light that streamed into the building at the dying of the day.




Both of us had wanted to see Ushaw College for a while: the attraction for me lay in the Pugin connection. Augustus Pugin (Gus to his friends…) was one of the Victorian era's greatest Gothic Revival architects, and designed the first buildings at Ushaw in his trademark style. In fact, the college has a peripatetic history that reminds you somewhat of the story of the Knights Templar … it was founded in Douai, north-eastern France, in 1568, and moved to Ushaw Moor in County Durham in 1808. The Templars were driven out of France due to religious persecution and the French King’s lust for money, and ended up in Kilwinning where they took on a new identity (freemasons) and gave birth to the myths and legends which drive the plot of Umberto Eco’s novel “Foucault’s Pendulum”. By contrast, the seminary at Ushaw had a more peaceful birth. The French clergy were welcomed into Britain, enough time having passed since the Reformation that Catholicism was no longer suppressed or banned. We should be grateful for that, because neither atheist nor Protestant would build somewhere which celebrates faith like Ushaw does.




The first 200 acres of land at Ushaw was purchased in 1799 by Bishop Gibson, and the buildings date from 1804, when work began on a central quadrangle designed by James Taylor of Islington. More than thirty years later, the college’s president, Dr Newsham, presented his vision for the future, and that resulted in the appointment of Pugin, whose work began with designs for a Chapel in 1839: although his initial proposals were rejected, work began in 1844. This began an association with the Pugin family that lasted for a century, and firmly stamped Ushaw with the mark of Gothic Revivalism. Much of Augustus Pugin’s output was ecclesiatical, and alongside seminaries he designed churches and cathedrals. He also spawned an architectural dynasty, as his son Edward Welby Pugin carried out work in the same style. Where modern takes on religious architecture (like Coventry Cathedral and Liverpool RC Cathedral) tend to use abstract forms, the Victorians liked to celebrate God by piling on intricate decoration.




Gothic revivalism has several signature elements – doors and windows sit underneath pointed arches; roofs are steeply pitched; there are pinnacles at the corners; and buildings are planned around courtyards and quadrangles. At Ushaw, the Pugins combined religious and collegiate architecture to good effect and happily, much of the college is still active, with part of it converted into a conference suite. However, St Cuthberts Chapel and the western quadrangle have been abandoned, and that chapel is perhaps the most impressive part. It was designed by Hansom and Dunn, replacing an earlier Pugin chapel on the same site, and was first used in 1884. Later, another Pugin (Peter Paul Pugin, how cruel parents can be when they name their children…) further extended the seminary buildings. Rather than me listing all the parts which were attributed to Pugin pere ou fils, I’d suggest following this link www.ushaw.ac.uk as the college have done a thorough job of setting out their complex development.




The light in the chapel’s transept was wonderful, making the walls glow and bringing the rich decoration to life: I’ve seen various sets of photos from Ushaw, but it appears to be one of these places which is made or broken by the light you find on the day. Against the rich mural decoration, carved pews, intricate altarpiece and solid-looking Bevington organ, is cool blonde-coloured sandstone, dressed off into ashlar and making a perfect foil for the rich dark colours elsewhere in the chapel. The high altar is carved from Caen sandstone (a link with the seminary’s French roots), and the altarpiece is carved from alabaster, with marble shafts. Other parts of the derelict section are more Spartan, as you would expect to concentrate the minds of boys heading for the stifled morality of the priesthood. I spotted a comment elsewhere that most of their day was conducted in complete silence – including mealtimes – and you certainly feel that a hushed, reverential approach is best as you walk around. The buildings are at peace and it seemed a heresy to clump through them without “wiping your muddy boots”…




Beyond the pigeon-filled stairwells and snowy threshold, the college owns a large spread of County Durham. The Ushaw estate expanded to over 1500 acres in the early 20th century, and as at many asylums, the surrounding farmland was an integral part of the institution, and the farms and walled gardens provided most of the food needed by the College community. Production centred on the Home Farm, which the College continued to manage for its own use until 1972. Its steading and granary sits up from the road like a fortress. The College still owns land, with 30 acres of gardens and grounds, and the remainder as tenanted farms. We left just as the light faded, having worked our way through the buildings and listened to the breeze clattering loose slates on the sarking, and rogue pigeons fluttering around in the attics. This old section of Ushaw may be at peace, but it’s never quiet.

Cheers to Skin for the pointers. :thumb

Shot on Agfachrome RSXii