"Cat" Ball Court – Durham, England - Atlas Obscura

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"Cat" Ball Court

Ushaw College

These courts are the only ones of their kind in the world, made for a unique ball game that dates back to the 1700s. 


In the grounds of the beautiful Ushaw College is an area of playing fields, situated just to the east of the main building.  This area is known as “the Bounds” and was built as part of the original college complex, but the development of the library meant that it had to be moved farther to the east.

The college had a strong tradition of distinctive ball games one of which was the game called Cat. These new Bounds were designed as an integrated games complex, which incorporates three ball courts for a game played with a narrow bat called Keeping Up, six smaller racquet houses that were generally used for handball, and two courts for the game of Cat (or Katt).

Cat is an ancient and unique ball game, which is undoubtedly one of the college’s most fascinating features. The game originated in the college of Douai, where it was played as early as 1760 and features aspects of baseball, squash, and golf. Cat was an annual event played from St Cuthbert’s Day, on March 20, to the end of May.

It is a seven-a-side game played with a hard ball—smaller than a tennis ball but larger than a golf ball. It is traditionally played on an open field with an 80-yard circular track that has seven holes, around which the batting team assemble. Each bat has a shaft similar to a golf club and a flattened bottle-shaped head four inches long and two inches in diameter. The bats were made from ash.

When the ball is struck, members of the striking team run as far around the circular track as they can. Fielders on the opposing team attempt to return the ball into a hole before a member of the batting team can touch the hole.  

Once batters have progressed around the track twice, the batsman can attempt to achieve a “cross.”  Upon striking the ball, members of the batting team run to the center of the pitch, cross their bats and return to the holes before the fielders can pot the ball. These crosses gain the points, and if a striker fails on three attempts to achieve a cross, the team is out.Some of the games bear similarities with the game of fives, and they probably developed in part from the local game of handball played in the various surrounding mining communities.  The shape of a fives court is said to have been based on the side of the chapel of Eton College which was supported by buttresses which formed bays in which the boys could play. In 1840, the first purpose-built block of Eton fives courts was built and the design of these echoed the chapel court. The form of the ball courts at Ushaw, while not fives courts, may have been influenced by those at Eton.

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December 16, 2021

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