I spent last weekend at Gladstone’s Library. Between my arrival on the Friday afternoon and when I packed up to check out on Sunday morning, I wrote over 9,000 words: mostly story drafts (of which I posted a short one the other day), but some of those words were drafts of blog posts, from thoughts I had while I was somewhere slightly apart from the rest of the world. Below is the first of these posts…
I’m at Gladstone’s Library, on a writing retreat.
This is something which could be considered as achieving a lifetime ambition or childhood dream, but at the same time it’s… not. As frequently happens at the moment, when I try to untangle my thoughts, I’m struggling to pin anything down so I’ll just have to talk around the subject to work things out.
Firstly, what is Gladstone’s Library? Put simply, it’s the UK’s only residential library. That doesn’t actually mean you sleep among the stacks (*sniff* *sob*), it means that there’s rooms you can stay in within the same building as the library, and there’s a dining room, lounge etc. – the whole set-up feels to me like a small-scale version of what a University college might have been like in late 19th / early 20th century, except that you decide the length of your stay and any study you do is entirely voluntary and self-directed.
Not that I really worked any of that out in my head until last night. But that’s how it feels to me, and it’s really rather a special and wonderful place because of all that.
But now, a little history, which is where my thoughts get tangled. You see, Gladstone’s Library (which used to be called St Deiniol’s Library, named after its neighbour the church of St Deiniol) is in Hawarden. I grew up 2-3 miles from here, in Hawarden parish. I was confirmed at St Deiniol’s, and I used to attend a Church-affiliated youth club at the Tithe Barn, on the third side of the ‘square’ at the end of Church Lane. Walking round the graveyard with Fiona Pickles (of Manifold Press – I’m here on a writing retreat with fellow Manifold Press authors), I paused and pointed out a couple of graves near the church door: people who I’d known a little as a teenager, and I remembered their passing and the effects on the communities who knew them.
So, in a way, I’m a local – except I’m not. We only moved to Wales when I was 6, so I was always an outsider; and although we lived in Hawarden parish, the way the local authority drew the boundaries for school catchment areas, Hawarden High School wasn’t even in the same area grouping as our school… and on top of all those feelings of “this should be familiar, this is where I’m from” there’s the somewhat uncomfortable realisation that I no more know how to describe my faith now than I did then. Though I’ve tried numerous times to ‘fit into’ the faith in which I was brought up (probably best described as ‘secular Anglican’: we always went to Church at Christmas and Easter, but the rest of the time it was up to us whether we went or not), I’m left with the feeling that the parts which most resonate with me are those which are universal to all faiths I know of, and in some key areas I disagree with Christian (not just Church, but stuff which comes from the Bible) teaching.
But Gladstone’s Library is a world away from all that. A little haven of tranquillity, containing beautiful rooms filled with old books and the scent of cherished knowledge.
I grew up hearing and knowing the name of Gladstone, understanding that the area’s prosperity had once hinged as much on the Gladstone family name as Waddesdon’s does on that of Rothschild – yet I knew very little about the man himself, William Gladstone. I still know embarrassingly little about him, but a man who reputedly wheeled barrowfuls of books through the streets from his home to establish a library, and who left such a wonderful residential library as his legacy? That’s the kind of person I’d like to emulate.