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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Hope Street

It might seem a little greedy to have not one, but two cathedrals that are each architectural masterpieces in the same city, but Liverpool takes it further by siting them on the same street with just half a mile between them. Technically the Anglican building’s address is St James’ Mount, but head south on Hope Street from the Metropolitan Cathedral and you’ll find it.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the street must therefore owe its name to some religious aspiration, but in fact it predates the two buildings and derives from a merchant called William Hope.  In fact as the 19th century drew to a close Liverpool had no cathedral at all.  An act of parliament provided authorisation for one in 1885, but the plans were abandoned when the proposed site was found to be unsuitable.

As the 20th century began the idea was revived and a competition held for the design of what was to become the Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool; the Anglican cathedral.  The competition winner was Giles Gilbert Scott, a controversial choice since he was 22, had no prior experience and was a Roman Catholic.  (In fairness he was part of a design dynasty).

The Catholic cathedral had it’s own false starts; a Pugin design didn’t progress very far and was demolished in 1980. In 1930 Edwin Lutyens submitted his huge design, which would have been second in size only to St Peters in Rome (though with a larger dome).  World War II intervened and costs soared to until in 1958 with only the crypt complete, work was abandoned.  In a remarkable turnaround a design competition for this structure was held in 1959 and Frederick Gibberd’s cathedral was consecrated in 1967.  This is the unique building variously known as “Paddy’s Wigwam”, “The Mersey Funnel” and more accurately the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King.

It’s modern, spacious and full of contemporary art.  A complete contrast to the Anglican building which had been growing steadily down the road but was still incomplete.  Queen Elizabeth dedicated Scott’s Gothic Revival over a decade later in 1978.

If I enjoyed the freshness of the Catholic building I was simply astonished by the Anglican.  It’s the longest cathedral in the world, possibly the largest Anglican cathedral (in competition with St John’s, New York), and one of the tallest too (if you exclude spires).  You might but that last fact down to the enormous tower, but to do so would be to overlook the height of the nave alone.  It soars.  It’s breathtaking.

It’s a quarter century since I was last in St Peters (I need to rectify that) so the impact of that church has long subsided.  For now I’ll just remain in awe of Liverpool’s Anglican option.  It’s neighbour might have had greater impact in a city where it stood alone, or had Pugin or Lutyens completed their efforts, but can it compete in the city of two cathedrals.  It doesn’t have a hope.  Despite the street name.