Well, not quite in a library. Almost, though.
My best friend’s husband texted me a couple of months ago to suggest a birthday surprise for his lovely wife. I’ve known Mandy since 1989. We met at a party in our first term at university and shared a house in our final year. Over the twenty six years since graduation, we have been through lots of adventures, but this weekend I think we had our best one yet.
Thanks to Andy, we had an overnight stay at Gladstone’s library in Hawarden.
I’d been there twenty three years ago as a Master’s student when I was training as an archivist. It was known as St Deiniol’s College back then. It’s still a research library, but anyone can book a stay. The bedrooms are much improved since I was last there.
The library is unique. It’s the UK’s only Prime Ministerial public library, gifted to the nation by Gladstone in 1889. It’s also an example of that increasingly rare thing, the silent library. This thrilled me. Holding whispered conversations added to the atmosphere of calm and reflection. I was in my element!
The main reading room is surrounded by books in the vast Theology collection.
Adjacent is the History room, which is a mixture of Gladstone’s own books and more recent books that provide context to the times Gladstone lived in. These books are in the Gladstone Foundation Collection and, while residential visitors can borrow a lot of the books in the library to read in their room or elsewhere in the library building, the books from Gladstone’s own library can only be read in the reading rooms.
Upstairs from the History Room is a mezzanine of Political Science, Language, Natural History and Economics books, and doorways through to the Theology mezzanine.
Further back on the ground floor, through a doorway hidden in a corner, is the Annexe. Mobile racking filled with donated collections and literary fiction and criticism covering the 16th to the early 20th centuries stretches out along a room with stone lined walls and small windows.
We spent the hours after our arrival in the History Room, the Annexe, and upstairs on the mezzanine of the Gladstone Foundation Collection. Here I found lots to entertain me, including a biography of Nell Gwyn that I read sitting in an armchair in a window, and a collection of Welsh Short Stories that I took back to our room.
It’s exciting enough being in the library. What’s also incredibly exciting is, if you’re a Friend of the library or a residential visitor, you can ask for access to the library after it closes to Day Readers at 5pm. Of course, we did this, and were given a special key for the night that gave us access to the House of Wisdom, a collection of Persian and Arabic literature, and the Gladstone Foundation Collection. Here we could while the hours away from 5pm until 10pm reading, thinking, writing and reflecting.
We returned to the library after eating out at the Glynne Arms. It looked very welcoming with the glow of the lights at twilight.
Back in the reading rooms, I had a read of a beautifully illustrated edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam followed by a look through books on poultry, goats and sheep.
I also found a pile of books from another library user, with a plea not to put the books away.
We were the only readers in the library and had to be gently ushered out at 10pm. I took the Rubaiyat with me to the Gladstone Room, where I enjoyed the poetry over a small glass of sherry (not pictured).
The following day, after eating breakfast and checking out, we returned to the reading rooms for more literary exploration. I read four short stories: A Story by Dylan Thomas (it was hard not to laugh out loud reading that one); The Loss by Kate Roberts; Losing by Clare Morgan; and Barbecue by Catherine Merriman. So that’s three new-to-me women writers to find more books by. I also flicked through two books about Japanese pottery, a book about keeping hens, a book on Scottish dialect, a book about micro plants and a book about ants, bees and wasps, in which the author wrote about an experiment to get ants drunk.
We squeezed ourselves out after a couple of hours and headed off to Bilberry Woods, which is part of the Gladstone Estate. We needed a pass from the library, because it’s a private wood. It’s beautiful, full of oak, beech, horse chestnut, birch, sycamore, lime and hawthorn trees, plus a mystery tree. Some of the oaks looked pretty old.
We strolled for an hour or so, and then it was time to leave. We waved goodbye to William Ewart Gladstone and his library and set off home.
I’d like to live there. I can imagine it’s a wonderful space for writers who need time away from everyday life. There’s a writers in residence programme. Four of my favourite writers have been there: Naomi Alderman, Wendy Cope, Jessie Burton and Sarah Perry.
There’s also a literary festival that I fancy.
Bizarrely, spending so much time in the quiet tranquility of the library, reading like a magpie, free from distraction and obligation has left me struggling a little to get into the novel I tried to start this morning. Perhaps I’ll switch it for some non-fiction.