Colour Amidst the Coal Dust

Just before I left Durham, I made sure of one final trip on my bucket list of significant buildings on my patch.

On the face of it, a tiny pit village to the west of the city should have little to offer other than its industrial heritage, but for some reason it was singled out for siting a Roman Catholic Seminary at the start of the 19th century.  When you consider that the seminary had its origins in France it’s all the more remarkable that it ended up here.

The English College, Douai was established in the mid 16th century, which was long after the periods of English occupation in Northern France, so you might wonder what led to its creation, but given that this was a period of great religious turbulence on this side of the English channel the location makes a lot of sense.  Or it did until Napoleon and the French Revolution, at which point the college and its students were no longer welcome.  Catholic persecution was over by now and so the school returned to England and ended up in Durham; initially at Crook Hall (one on the bucket list that remained unticked) until building work commenced in Ushaw.

An interesting enough story but it could have ended there with a bunch of religious students in some Victorian college buildings.  Except that these Victorian college buildings were designed by an architectural dynasty of great repute.  The Pugins.

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was a leading gothic revivalist, most famous for designing the interiors of the Palace of Westminster, which few of us have seen, and the clock tower known as Big Ben (though that is actually the name of its largest bell) which everyone has seen!  He and his sons Peter Paul Pugin and Edward Welby (known as E.W.) Pugin have run riot at Ushaw College, recreating a medieval look which at times is breathtaking, and at others borders on pastiche.

This latter description is perhaps given weight by the quality of the work.  It is clear that the Pugin’s understood theatrical design; created for effect rather than accuracy.  Whereas medieval statuary would be carved to perfection under the eye of a master mason, and in the belief that the almighty would also be scrutinising the workmanship, the Pugin angels are quite rough-looking when viewed through a telephoto lens, but perched on high above the chapel nave they are far enough away from the worshipper to have the desired effect.

Despite the visual opulence the seminary was not successful in continuing to draw students in these more secular times and it closed in 2011, and was acquired by Durham University who have intentions to establish it as a research centre.   It strikes me that even the most diligent researcher might just be a little distracted here!


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