Ushaw College looks a forbidding place as you drive there across the moors outside Durham, and finding a new role for the former Catholic seminary must have seemed an almost insurmountable challenge when it closed in 2011. But seven years later, it is thriving.

It has retained its Catholic ethos, it houses Durham University’s music and business schools and it is developing an international residential research library, the first of its kind in Britain, to attract scholars from around the world as fellows to work on the collections of Ushaw, Durham University and Durham Cathedral.

I was fortunate to be one of the first fellows, and I’ve been using my time at Ushaw to delve into its collections as part of my research for a book on martyrdom. There will be 25 fellowships in this first year and applications have just opened for the next ones. (If you want to spend one or three months working in the archives and libraries, contact Dr James Kelly at Applications are needed by November 14.)

Ushaw’s recent guests include the Duke of Kent. He was shown the library and met the archivists who are cataloguing material that has been stored at Ushaw for many years, including documents relocated there from the closed English College in Lisbon. The Duke was shown the document that was part of negotiations over the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles I. It included handing over Bombay to the British – arguably the start of the British Empire.

Ushaw’s celebrated alumni include the poet Francis Thompson. Its first public lecture of this academic year was given by Keith Hanley, professor of English at Lancaster University, who recalled Thompson’s time as a seminarian at Ushaw. Thompson’s life was a chequered one. Ill-health led him to leave Ushaw to study medicine at Manchester. He later became addicted to opium, lived on London’s streets and wrote poetry in which he tried to create a new language, influenced by late Romanticism and modernism. Some have claimed that he was Jack the Ripper. Professor Hanley preferred to focus on not just the depths to which Thompson sank but also the redemptive experiences he had, reflected in his masterpiece, The Hound of Heaven.

For those who prefer something lighter, there is a delightful exhibition on until December 22 of the work of cartoonist John Ryan, creator of Captain Pugwash and the Herald’s cartoonist for 43 years. The show has been put together by Ryan’s daughter Isabel and the Catholic historian Alana Harris. It will move to King’s College, London, next year.

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