TV star opens York’s newest tourist attraction – 24 pictures reveal a hidden gem

Stunning – the pictorial staircase
22 Oct 2015 @ 8.33 pm
| History
Back to school… Alex Polizzi, best known as TV's Hotel Inspector, opens the Bar Convent exhibition. Photographs: Richard McDougall
Back to school… Alex Polizzi, best known as TV’s Hotel Inspector, opens the Bar Convent exhibition. Photographs: Richard McDougall

She’s famous for finding fault with struggling hotels. But Alex Polizzi had nothing but praise for a very special place to stay in York.

The Bar Convent exhibition

17 Blossom Street, York. YO24 1AQ

Mon-Sat @ 10am to 5pm

£2-£4.50

Bar Convent website

But then, the Bar Convent on Blossom Street is not only a beautiful building with an extraordinary history – Alex also has a close connection to the charity that runs it.

The presenter of Channel 5’s The Hotel Inspector was invited by her former headteacher, Sister Frances Orchard, to open York’s newest tourist attraction. Sister Frances is chair of the Bar Convent Trust.

More than £1 million has been spent creating the Living Heritage Project. Over two floors, this exhibition tells the remarkable stories of The Bar Convent and its founder Mary Ward.

Alex said:

What Mary Ward founded is important to me and for the role of women in our culture today.

The importance of the roles of Catholic women is something that still needs to be pushed forward because we still haven’t won the battle.

New chapter in the Bar Convent's long history
New chapter in the Bar Convent’s long history

Altogether more than £2 million has been spent restoring The Bar Convent which comprises Grade I listed 18th century buildings on the site of the original 1686 house.

The guest rooms have also been revamped. So what does Alex think of the three-year project?

The 20 guest rooms here have made such a huge difference. The convent is such a nice place and hopefully the work done here will help in being supportive to raise awareness.

The convent and Catholic women are not as well known as they should be in such a tourist city. Hopefully this redevelopment will help to fix the problem by showing what a historic and important place it is to visit.

Beautiful: the atrium
Beautiful: the atrium
The floor of the atrium
The floor of the atrium

Although the stunning atrium gives visitors a wonderful introduction to the convent, its beauty belies a sometimes torrid history.

The convent has witnessed some turbulent and violent periods in English history. It was founded in 1686 as a school for Catholic girls.

It’s been attacked by mobs, has housed Bosnian refugees and has even been bombed by the Luftwaffe.

Radical: Sister Mary Ward
Radical: Sister Mary Ward

One of the key figures in its formation was Sister Mary Ward, a radical, Yorkshire-born pioneer of girls’ education across Europe.

Alex said:

The seeds that Mary Ward planted so many years ago still haven’t fully grown and we need to push the authority of Catholic women to be better represented in this day and age.

I have a daughter myself, and to see what Mary Ward and the sisters here taught me is so admirable, it is incredibly important that this notion continues.

The interactive gallery
The interactive gallery
A video welcome
A video welcome
Dangerous times recalled
Dangerous times recalled

The old museum has been replaced with a state-of-the art exhibition that charts the 300 year history of the Bar Convent.

In 1686, a time of great danger for all Catholics in England, a woman named Frances Bedingfield purchased a small parcel of land just outside York’s walls. She signed the deed under an alias.

Stunning – the pictorial staircase
Stunning – the pictorial staircase
An amazing centrepiece
An amazing centrepiece

The ladies who then lived and worked beneath the building’s dull slate roof wore slate-coloured gowns, and called themselves the ‘Ladies of the Bar’.

Nobody knew the truth they concealed. For the early sisters of The Bar Convent, discovery meant punishment – and even death.

Some ancient church documents
Some ancient church documents
Sir Thomas More
Sir Thomas More, a hero to Catholics at the time of Henry VIII
Hidden gem: the chapel inside the convent
Hidden gem: the chapel inside the convent
A closer view
A closer view

The Bar Convent Chapel is one of the hidden gems of York. It has been a place of prayer for nearly 250 years. Designed by the well-known York architect Thomas Atkinson, it was completed in 1769.

For most of the 18th century Catholic chapels and services were still illegal and there are many features which reflect this in the design of the building.

No sign of the chapel from the front of the convent
No sign of the chapel from the front of the convent

The chapel is placed at the back of the complex of buildings which make up the convent, hidden from view from the main street, and also from the garden.

The plain lunette windows reveal nothing of its ecclesiastical nature, and the dome, lower than usual, is concealed from outside view by a slate pitched roof.

There is also a priest’s hole in which the priest could be hidden during a raid, although there is no evidence that it was ever used.

This hiding place was forgotten and the entrance lost, until its rediscovery during electrical works in the early 20th century. Visitors can now see inside.

A timeline of the convent's long history
A timeline of the convent’s long history
Celebrating the work of the church throughout the world
Celebrating the work of the church throughout the world
The view onto the garden from the first floor
The view onto the garden from the first floor
Haven… it's hard to believe that the hidden garden is only yards from one of York's busiest junctions
Haven… it’s hard to believe that the hidden garden is only yards from one of York’s busiest junctions
One of the plants in the garden
One of the plants in the garden
Times are changing at the convent…
Times are changing at the convent…
Light breaking through the shadows
Light breaking through the shadows
The archway above the door
The archway above the door
The shiny brass plaque at the convent
The shiny brass plaque at the convent