THERE is an unmistakeable buzz in the air at Upholland. Not literally — the former seminary and its 300 acres of grounds stand in tranquil, rural isolation amid the rolling Lancashire hills where the chaos of the city is little more than a visit of Wigan and its pier glimpsed from the top of a nearby peak.
No, the excitement is within the building itself. Upholland, as St Joseph's College has become universally known in tribute to the village that stands in its shadow, has been thrown a lifeline. After over a decade of decline, the college has been offered a new future in the form of a self-financing development plan that will restore Upholland as one of the principal assets of the English church.
St Joseph's College is a bizarre combination of imposing Oxford college, cloistered around a central quad, and sorethumb like Victorian folly, standing huge and frozen in an ill-suited landscape. Within its portals, the evidence of past glories is there in abundance. The miles of corridors are bedecked with souvenirs of former achievements. Group photographs of fresh-faced, eager, newly qualified priests who passed through Upholland stare out. The definition gets clearer but the numbers thinner as the embossed roll call of years at the top of each print approaches the eighties.
And therein lies the cause of Upholland's decline. In its century of training priests in both junior and senior seminary, it cared for 2,500 students, of whom 850 made it through to Holy Orders. But recent years saw the demise of first the senior and then the junior seminary through lack of numbers. Upholland "was in grave danger of becoming merely a sad and decaying memorial to a former method of religious training, no longer relevant to present and foreseeable needs" in the words of Archbishop Derek Worlock.
The vast attic dormitories with their state of the art plumbing and cubicles recall the spartan images of public schoolboy tales. The classrooms where boys from the age of 11 upwards were given an education in an environment that was geared towards a commitment to their faith, and a practical expression of that, now lie idle.
To be fair an element of junior seminary continues to exist at Upholland, with about a dozen youngsters still resident, although they are now learning in nearby co-educational secondary schools.
With the closure of the senior seminary in the late 1970s, Upholland Northern Institute was born, an attempt, for a while successful, at maintaining a "theological presence in the north west". But the resources of the institution proved too vast for even the combined demand of the northern dioceses, and St
Upholland is to be the scene of one of the most ambitious development schemes ever mounted by the Catholic Church in this country. Peter Stanford visits the site.
Joseph's has something of the air today of a vast Victorian pile with treasures and memories locked away and forgotten in the hundreds of rooms that line its corridors. Bakelite telephones still connected to the exchange, forgotten pictures of college dramas, rows of empty coat pegs.
But there is that buzz in the air. From the receptionist who guards the impressive entrance hall which overlooks the lake and cascade in the grounds, to Bishop John Rawsthorne, an auxiliary in Liverpool, who was the last rector of the college and now is resident there, enthusiasm for the future of Upholland is the order of the day.
Following the closure of the Upholland Northern Institute, various plans for Upholland were considered. A bid by the National Girobank to take over the whole site was being considered when privatisation ended months of delicate negotiations with the archiocese at a stroke.
What Archbishop Derek Worlock describes as "a fine institutional building" was nonethleless unacceptable to many conference delegates accustomed to the anonymous comforts of hot and cold running water, modern furnishings and thick-pile carpets.
Upholland needed renovating, and the scheme that is to go before West Lancashire District Council will do just that — with the added advantage of funding itself. The central quad of the college will be completely overhauled to provide day and residential conference facilities, a retreat centre, administrative offices, and a home for those considering the priesthood, those contemplating taking things a little easier after a lifetime as clerics, and those who employed by the archdiocese.
In the immediate grounds of the college a youth hostel and a home for the remaining junior seminarians will be constructed.
The whole operation will be funded by making use of the rest of the 300 acres site — but utilising it with a view to serving the local community and to maintaining the rural feel of this green belt area that is within 45 minutes drive of Liverpool city centre. There will be an 18 and nine hole golf course, bowling green, hotel, restaurant and bars, and a sports centre with swimming pools, sauna, squash and the like.
A commercial development will provide 40,000 feet of hi-tech offices which will generate 300 jobs locally. And 70 acres of the existing grounds have been earmarked for between 270-300 desireable residences in leafy closes with design tags like "Tennyson" and "Wordsworth".
Local people's fears that their little corner of rural England is to go the way of neighbouring Skelmersdale, once a quaint village, now blighted overspill location for Liverpool, are to be quelled with a display of all the plans at the college.
Archbishop Worlock stressed his desire to recognise local needs as well as church ones when he describes the plans as turning Upholland once again "into a great resource for the archdiocese and a notable asset to the local community".