BY MARK GREAVES
THE SITE of a former Catholic seminary in a quiet corner of Sussex has been used by alQaeda to train potential terrorists, it was alleged this week.
St Joseph's seminary, in the village of Mark Cross, East Sussex, was a place of learning for more than half a century for boys who wished to join the priesthood.
But the seminary's Gothic buildings and 54-acre grounds are now the site of an extensive police investigation after reports of "terror camps" which trained fanatical Muslims in the use of AK47s and rocket launchers.
The preaching of Islamic terrorism in a place where boys were once raised in the precepts of the Catholic faith has shocked former students and professors at the seminary.
Fr Christopher Benyon, who was a pupil at the school and then a teacher in the years before it closed in 1970, said: "Some of the old rectors must be turning in their graves.
"To see the place where I taught young boys who were thinking about the priesthood being searched by the police for arms — it's certainly quite a change."
Fr Benyon remembers boating and fishing on the lake in the late 1960s. "Now I imagine that lake is being dragged for arms," he said.
Police began searching the premises at 6am on Saturday morning after a series of raids in London on Friday night that led to the arrests of 14 terror suspects.
According to testimonies given by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, training camps for groups of around 30 men were held at the school between 1997 and 1998.
The camps were advertised at Finsbury Mosque and were attended by radical imam Abu Hamza, who was jailed for seven years earlier this year for incitement to murder.
Since 1992 the site has been owned by the Islamic charity Jameah Islamiyah. The charity established an independent school in 2003 with the aim of teaching higher Islamic studies.
Fr Kevin Gaskin, who was a pupil at the seminary, is now the area's parish priest, based at Sacred Heart in Wadstead. "1 pass the school day by day, but they never encourage visitors," he said.
"The Times described it as a rambling and brooding place, but that's not how 1 remember it. I felt it was a bright and cheery building I have happy memories of it," he added.
Fr Gaskin explained that the site's chapel, which is now boarded up, was once used by the local community and functioned as the centre of the parish.
Eric St John-Foti, another former pupil who attended the seminary in the early 1940s, said the boys lived in wooden cubicles at the top of the building and followed rules similar to that of a closed order, with no speaking allowed during breakfast and lunch.
"But the discipline didn't do me any harm, I think it had a good effect. The rector ruled with a rod of iron," he added.
The Jameah Islamiyah school, which currently houses only 12 pupils in a 100-room building, has frequently allowed the grounds to be used by outside parties at weekends.
But the school authorities insist that they were unaware of the nature of the terror camps held at the site. The police have stressed that no arrests have been made and that the school has co-operated fully with the investigation.
The school's building was designed by Edward Welby Pugin in 1868 and funded by the Duchess of Leeds. It began as an orphanage dedicated to St Michael and was run by nuns but became a junior seminary in 1925.
Before the site was bought by Jameah Islamiyah it was used as a ballet school.