Living the Life of a 19th-Century Scholar at Gladstone’s Library: Hawarden, Wales

Gladstone's Library is both homey and a little bit imposing.

Weak spring sunshine streamed through the mullioned windows of Gladstone’s Library as I settled into a wing chair with a stack of books. I opened the first, which I’d picked mainly because it was dated 1881 and so might have been owned by the library’s founder, British prime minister and all-round eminent Victorian William Ewart Gladstone. I was also intrigued by the title: Science Without God, written by H. Didion and translated by Rosa Corder.

The library is a charming place to while away an afternoon.

As I opened it, a business card fell out. It wasn’t fancy: embossed black type on plain white card stock. But the words on it startled me: “Miss Rosa Corder/91, Southampton Row/Russell Square.”

The translator’s card was still in the book, some 130 years after she sent it. So was her handwritten note on the flyleaf, hoping that Mr. Gladstone would enjoy reading this proof copy.

And I could just pick this leather-bound tome off the shelf and read it, without asking permission, filling out a form or donning special gloves. As a resident of this century-old Welsh library–the other wing of the building houses a rambling dorm–I could spend all day and much of the evening in this wing chair, wallowing in books about Victorian England, Irish politics, theology and more. Let shopaholics have Harrods. Let soccer fans flock to Old Trafford. I’d found my Louvre, my Mount Everest, my Sydney Opera House.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You can live in a quaint Welsh village off the beaten path.
  • You can take short courses on topics like “Welsh in a Week” and “Films of Faith and Doubt.”
  • Good for: book lovers and history buffs.

Until 2010, this red sandstone retreat in northeastern Wales was known as St. Deiniol’s Library, named for the church next door. For years, I’ve been saving a dog-eared brochure about the place that I requested by mail (mail!) sometime in the late 1980s. I’m not sure what kept me dreaming of the place for decades: the idea of living with 250,000 books, the photos of the two-storey library with its polished wood galleries, the fantasy of escaping to the small Welsh village of Hawarden. But dream I did, and when I finally made my way there, it was as quirky and charming as I’d imagined.

The plan for the library germinated in Gladstone’s mind in 1882, when he found out a recently deceased Anglican theologian was about to have a library built in his memory near Oxford University. Whether it was ego, altruism or both, Gladstone decided to build his own library in his hometown. He carted many of his 32,000 books by wheelbarrow from his home in Hawarden Castle to the library’s first temporary building, almost a mile away. The current building opened to the public in 1902, four years after Gladstone’s death. From the beginning, it was a place for people to both live and read.

The Dorm Wing: All the Comforts of Home

My little dorm room had all the necessities for the scholars of modest means who make up much of the clientele. Along with a comfortable bed, a small desk overlooking the churchyard next door and tea-making gear, there was free wi-fi.

My dorm room: plain but cozy.

However, I didn’t spend much time there. There were communal meals to enjoy in the sunny coffee shop, and great conversation to be had with fellow guests in the wood-panelled lounge. With its big fireplace and honour bar, the lounge was so quintessentially English that I half expected to discover Miss Marple there some night, anxiously studying some still-warm body. But instead, I fell into fascinating conversations with people like husband-and-wife pastors from San Diego, who cautiously discussed American politics once they had discerned where my own political sympathies lay.

I also stumbled into a fun conversation with a grey-bearded local clergyman named Stephen. Coincidentally, he and I were heading out the door for a walk at the same time one afternoon, and he offered to show me the sights. We crossed the street and he opened a red wooden gate, which I would have walked right by on my own. In an instant, we left behind the quaint village and stepped into countryside–the grounds of Hawarden Castle,where the green hills were dotted with wobbly-legged lambs.

“I look at them and think, ‘Oh, so cute,'” I said to Stephen.

“I look at them and think, ‘Oh, how tasty,'” he replied. Despite my sympathy for the  lambs, I couldn’t help but smile.

The relaxing lounge, with no sign of Miss Marple.

Drop in, Slow Down, Chill Out

My few days at Gladstone’s Library transported me far from hectic London, where my journey began–not that far physically, but light years mentally. There’s something timeless about the place that lulled me into a state of happy contemplation. I often lost myself in daydreams just staring out my window at the churchyard or curled up in the library–and I didn’t feel one bit guilty about “wasting” time.

One afternoon, a few days into my stay, I realized I’d truly left my stressed-out life behind. As I closed the door of my  dorm room and turned the key, I suddenly wondered, “Why on earth am I locking up? I’m in a library full of vicars.”

Practicalities

  • Hawarden is six miles from the English city of Chester, which is two hours by train from London’s Euston Station. It’s easy to pick up a cab from Chester to the library.
  • Reserve as far in advance as possible, particularly on summer weekends. Most but not all rooms have ensuites, so be sure to request one if you don’t want to use a loo down the hall.
  • Room rates include dinner but not other meals.
  • Scholarships and bursaries are available for long-term stays.
Average rating for this trip

Comments

  1. Jill Browne says

    What a wonderful idea for a holiday! Thanks for your charming description, Laura. I’m putting this library on my wish list.

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  2. Teresa says

    Wow – this is definitely on my bucket list as I love Wales and libraries :) Thanks for the great story!

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  3. says

    I like this a lot. I like it that you slowed down and read books (old books!) by natural light in a place run by vicars on your vacation. It reminds me of reading in the Bodleian library as an undergrad for a year at Oxford…I always felt scholarly, even when I couldn’t understand what I was reading. Did you alert the librarians to the extra material (biz card and letter) in the book you were reading? Librarians love that kind of thing.

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  4. says

    What a wonderful piece! I had to laugh at my reaction to your mention of not wearing gloves. I worked in the Special Collections section of a library (in San Diego, home to two of your vicars, as it happens) for several years and spent a lot of time putting things in moisture-proof and acid-free sleeves. I was a bit shocked when you mentioned the ease of access, and then annoyed that I’d been ruined for a good browse among old books.

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    • says

      Thanks, Edie! That’s funny about being ruined for a good browse. I once took a fiction writing class where the instructor warned us that we’d be ruined for reading for pleasure after we spent months dissecting the mechanics of plot and characterization. While it didn’t completely ruin me, I do find myself wondering “why did the author do X?” more often than I would like.

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  5. says

    What a great story Laura!! To think that you hung on to a dog-eared brochure and a dream for some thirty years or so and then not only made your dream come true, but you discovered the place was everything you thought it would be and more. Fabulous! It does sound enchanting.

    I have a dog-eared little Globe and Mail travel story about Procida, Italy, sitting in my bureau drawer. Ever since I read the little piece, I’ve wanted to travel to Procida. I don’t know much about the place but I think I’d like it.

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  6. Sylvia Burrows says

    It my favourite place to go, so peaceful, full of friendly people, great food and its so lovely to spend time with all those books. I would also recommend the courses – I learnt ‘Hebrew in a Week’, and love the film courses.

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  7. Kathe Lieber says

    Oh, Laura – my kind of “adventure” travel! Books, kindred spirits… I love it that you held onto that clipping for 30 years and finally made it there. OK, this is on my bucket list, now that my bungee-jumping career has been tragically cut short…

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  8. Sally Lewis Roof says

    My dream of staying at St. Deiniol’s ( as I still think of it) is finally coming true in June.
    I have wanted to visit for years, and although I have family in South Wales and have visited several times, I’ve not had the opportunity to go north. Your article has whet my appetite even more! The idea of a solo trip, the beautiful galleries of a residential library and time to read and explore is so exciting. Thanks, Laura for your wonderful article.

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    • says

      Hi Sally,
      I hope you have a wonderful time at St. Deiniol’s (that’s how I still think of it, too). Truly, it was one of the most lovely, restful places I have ever been. I’m so glad you enjoyed my article! If you think of it, do come back here after your trip and let us all know how it went. Bon voyage!
      Laura

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