Hawarden is a picturesque and quaint but fairly unassuming town in the north east of Wales. However, it was the home of the four-times British Prime Minister William Gladstone who, in his final years, decided to make his personal collection of books available to the nation. In 1895, aged 85, he bequeathed £40,000 (equivalent to £4.13 million) and his 32,000 volumes. A Library with a few adjoining rooms was built and, despite being in his eighties, one of the greatest men of Victorian public life personally transported some of his books there in a wheelbarrow.
After his death in 1898, the Library was enlarged as a memorial to the statesman and today it stands as an imposing red sandstone grade 1 listed building, next to a particularly stunning parish church. Since 1898, it has continuously fulfilled William Gladstone’s original wish of making knowledge accessible to others, as a Library and a theological training college. Today it is one of the UK’s very few residential libraries and, although the core of the collection is a Theology library, students and writers of all disciplines can stay there to read, write and contemplate.
When we realised that our February staff INSET was to undertake an “enriching” activity, Ms Smith and I decided that a Library where you can take the books to bed was an obvious choice. We had already been staying in Radnorshire and snaked north up the Welsh/English border in predictably wet weather.
On arrival we spent the afternoon and evening working in the library, which is open to residents until 10pm. Ms Smith read Women of Grace by Kathleen Parbury, a book exploring the saints and martyrs of Britain from the earliest days of the Christian church to 1845. I continued to research and then added 200 words to my novel (please don’t expect that to be finished any time within the next decade!). It truly was a beautiful place to work, with warm lamp light, intricately crafted bookshelves and bannisters, little secret staircases and desks nestled between book stacks. Perhaps it’s the legacy of a childhood spent living in a boarding school, but I felt oddly comfortable in the place, both in the Library itself and in the upstairs rooms with their odd creaks and draughty windows. For the first time in a while I felt calm enough to become absorbed in my own writing projects, away from the pressure of the hydra-headed pile of marking.
The ethos of Gladstone’s Library is to provide a silent space for those who come to work, and the library, reading rooms and even the residential areas are supposed to foster a constructive working atmosphere. However, it also aims to offer social spaces for those studying or writing there. We had a simple but lovely meal in the dining hall and in the late evening, after the library had closed, stayed in the sitting room by the log fire with a glass of wine, striking up conversation with a lady from Manchester who has just finished writing a book and, having secured a publishing deal, was staying for a week to undertake the final editing before submission.
Before departure the next day we explored the parish church of St Deiniol, with William Morris windows and a Gilbert Scott designed memorial chapel to the Gladstones. The Prime Minister and his wife are buried at Westminster Abbey, but this twelfth-century building has a vast marble sculpture of their life sized effigies, with their faces taken from death masks.
We are already discussing a possible return to Gladstone’s Library in the summer holiday, hopefully when one of the many creative writing workshops, language courses or theology workshops is taking place. In the meantime, however, we would like to thank PGS for the opportunity of visiting this very special place.