Saturday, 28 August 2010

St Deiniol's Residential Library

I'm just back from a few restful but productive days at St Deiniol's, Britain's only residential library.  The library was started by Gladstone to provide an opportunity for scholars to consult his personal library; 32,000 of Gladstone's books formed the core of the collection, and he left £40,000 in his will to develop the library further.  The current library building went up in 1902, and became residential in 1905.  The current collection develops Gladstone's interests in theology and history, but has been continually increased and improved over the years, and there is a good variety of stock in literature and the humanities.  I've spent the last few days reading various histories of English feminism and consulting biographies of leading twentieth century feminists, all in good supply; last time I was there I spent most of a day reading E M Delafield's Victorian Ladies and Gentlemen, and there is a section of twentieth-century fiction that came as a bequest and has the largest collection of Melvyn Bragg novels that I've ever seen in one place.

Anyone can stay there - you don't need to be a scholar or a member of the clergy, although those two groups probably dominate among the visitors - and for a very reasonable rate you get half-board accommodation and access to the library from 9am to 10pm each day.  It is a marvellous place to work; the distractions are few, the responsibilities of daily life are all dealt with, and the library itself is a peaceful and beautiful environment, rather Arts and Crafts in style.  I did the amount of reading in three and a half days that would normally take me three weeks.  Coffee break chats with fellow residents are enlivening - one of our fellow guests was researching transvestite women monks in Egypt - and there's a fair amount of gossip about bishops to be overheard.  St Deiniol's started as an "inclusive Anglican community" and the Warden is always a minister of the Church of England, but proselytising is not allowed and the library welcomes those of all faiths and none.  Godless heathens like me will not find the atmosphere uncomfortably spiritual.
The Library is in Hawarden, a few miles from Chester; Hawarden has its own station but it's quicker to get the bus from Chester station, which will also take you back into Chester again if you fancy an outing.  There are walks in the park of Hawarden Castle, Gladstone's family home, and through the nearby woods, provided you can tear yourself away from the library and its tempting books. 

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