AT THE end of a sabbatical from my duties as an NSM, I was looking for some uninterrupted space. Facing questions about what being a Christian, and being a priest, meant for me, I had been reading and mulling. Now I was ready to gather together the threads.
But where to go? As a writer by profession, I needed a place where I could write without distractions. Ideally, this place would also have theological and cultural research material to hand; a decent Wifi connection; and somewhere to eat and sleep. It was a tall order.
I had heard rumours of a residential library in Wales, and had glimpsed alluring pictures of book-lined rooms and leather sofas. Following these leads, I found Gladstone’s library in Hawarden, Flintshire.
A FEW weeks later, the cab from Chester station, a 20-minute drive away, dropped me in front of an imposing, red sandstone, gothic-revival building. It could be an Oxbridge college, nestled in the middle of a busy village.
The welcome was friendly and efficient, and the en-suite room was stylish and comfortable. I couldn’t wait to get to the library itself, which takes up one wing of the building.
Pushing open the door, I was struck speechless. Just as well, because this is a strictly marshalled silent space, which is all part of the magic. It comprises two, vaulted, chapel-like rooms with grand, hardwood posts and beams, each encircled by a gallery, reached by a creaky, winding staircase.
AS ITS name suggests, the library was founded in 1894 by the Victorian Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98). Wishing to make his 32,000 books available to a wider readership, he set up a residential library in his village, “for the pursuit of divine learning”.
The first library was a corrugated-iron structure known as the “tin tabernacle”, and Gladstone, then in his eighties, with his wife and an estate worker transported the books three-quarters of a mile from the family home, Hawarden Castle, in wheelbarrows. On his death, the present building, designed by John Douglas, was erected as a memorial to its founder, and Gladstone himself left a substantial sum for the ongoing purchase of new books.
Gladstone was a devout Christian, but his scholarly mind was far-reaching, liberal in every sense. He had read 22,000 of his books (about one a day), often adding comments in pencil. He believed that anyone who worked “solidly and seriously for the benefit of mankind” would contribute to ultimate truth.
Alongside classical and theological texts, I found books of practical value, including How to Make Poultry Pay, and The Philosophy of Manuring. There are now some 250,000 printed items, which cover the library’s trinity of themes: theology, literature, and history and current affairs.
I SPENT three nights and four days here. It delivered everything I wanted, apart from the weather (the tail end of Storm Barney lashed the building during my stay). But I was not tempted by the hills beyond. Gladstone’s library is marvellously conducive to concentration, its air of silent endeavour serving as a spur to my own.
The remarkable thing about libraries is that wild ideas lurk beneath a placid surface. I was reminded of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, fomenting revolutionary thinking in the reading room at the British Museum. Lounged in a comfortable armchair, I was contemplating the predicaments of belief, and the absence of God. Storm Barney was also loose among the bookshelves.
For many years, the library was primarily a sabbatical refuge for clergy. One fellow resident, who has been coming for about 18 years, said that it once had an almost monastic atmosphere, with bells sounding for meals, Latin graces, and nocturnal shufflings along corridors in search of bathrooms.
Those days have gone. The current warden, the Revd Peter Francis, has helped the place to evolve judiciously, increasing the emphasis on literature, history, and current affairs. In its extensive programme there are film series, writers in residence, and a politics thread. And, annually, there is the impressive literary festival Gladfest.
WHILE the library retains its attraction for scholarly priests, it is increasingly a draw for writers and academics. Mr Francis calculates that some 600 books have been written or researched here.
During my stay, I bumped into an academic from a northern university who was researching a book on literary versions of the apocalypse; and the recently retired arts editor of a national broadsheet who wanted to revive his interest in French literature. One had a faith background; the other did not. In the evenings, we yarned genially over drinks from the honesty bar in the common room, on leather sofas, in front of an open fire.
I received further nourishment from the comfort food provided by the library’s homely, in-house licensed restaurant, and from the daily, early morning eucharist in the library chapel, which was imaginatively and sensitively led.
I did not come back with answers to all my perplexities. But I did find room, in this inspiring setting, to articulate them more clearly. I plan to pack my Gladstone bag for a return visit.
Gladstone’s Library, Church Lane, Hawarden, Flintshire CH5 3DF. Phone 01244 532350; email email@example.com.
Single en-suite £73.00 per room, per night; double/twin en-suite £95.00 per room, per night. Discounted rates for students, clergy, members of the Society of Authors. Scholarships available.
Travel: train to Chester, then bus or cab (approx £17) from Chester to Hawarden.