One of the World's Most Beautiful Libraries Lets You Sleep Over
The best library for writing a book might also be a model for presidential libraries.
Was it the leathery scent in the air? Or the carefully crafted phrases being offered to me?
Either way, I’d come to Hawarden, a village in Wales, determined to sleep with… the books.
Gladstone’s Library—the latest selection for The Daily Beast’s monthly series, The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries—is a structure in Victorian Gothic style that houses about 150,000 works, including the books, papers, and letters of its founder, William Ewart Gladstone, a four-time British prime minister who died in 1898.
Gladstone had opened a temporary library in 1894, a corrugated iron building dubbed “The Tin Tabernacle,” next to the village church. He also turned a former schoolhouse into a place for library users to spend the night. What visitors see today Gladstone himself never saw finished: Built as a national memorial to him, the library wing opened in 1902 and the residential quarters five years later.
His personal collection of about 28,000 books focused on history and politics; religion and spirituality; and classical and contemporary literature, and many feature his hand-written notes in the margins.
The library, however, is more than the sum of its stacks: Believed to have served as a model for later U.S. presidential libraries, according to the Welsh site’s administrators, Gladstone’s is a registered charity that operates as a sort of quirky bed and breakfast and a peaceful retreat for those seeking time and space to write, or merely rest, in its unique atmosphere.
“We provide a place to think, resources to help you think and people to share your thoughts with,” the library’s director and warden, Peter Francis, said. “Our main group of visitors are writers and academics but the three subject areas also entice individuals, so students, clergy, historians and politicians.”
It also has offered residential courses with titles like “Welsh in a Week” or “Jane Austen in a Week” and its website has a helpful A-to-Z guide that includes directions from train stations and tips for local walks including a Hawarden Characters and Customs tour.
The property’s two-story galleried Reading Rooms feature soaring ceilings, wooden arches, arts-and-crafts-movement carvings and reading-and-writing nooks that have inspired many a Hogwarts reference. While these rooms house the library’s most striking features, they are considered a space of silent study, so the only sounds you are likely to hear might be the creaking of someone climbing a wooden spiral staircase or lightly tapping a laptop keyboard.
But you don’t have to spend a night under the sheets to see these rooms: When open to the public, the library offers free 10-minute “glimpses” a few times a day on a first-come, first-served basis. Or you can gain access by becoming a donor “friend” for around $40 (£30.00) a year.
The property also includes conference rooms, a chapel, a cafe called “Food For Thought,” and the cozy Gladstone Room which is furnished with Chesterfield-style sofas and comfy armchairs in front of an often-roaring fireplace. An “honesty bar” is set up for evening tipples.
I made use of that bar the first time I spent the night at Gladstone’s in February 2017. My modestly decorated but immaculate bedroom had cute bookshelf-print wallpaper and a retro-style Roberts vintage-look radio, but no television. (I was fine with that.)
I’d come to hear a former International New York Times colleague, Caroline Brothers, speak at one of Gladstone’s weekend “Hearth” festivals about researching her second novel, The Memory Stones, set in Argentina.
Gladstone’s is “the only library I know where you can actually stay the night,” Brothers said in an email interview with The Daily Beast, “and because of that, it's one of the most conducive places I know to write, perhaps because it outfoxes the writer's talent for procrastination. Faced with a deadline, there are no excuses: you roll straight out of bed and into the books.”
While working at Gladstone’s on the first draft of a novella set on a wild stretch of coastline, she said, “from my upstairs desk I could watch the tops of the trees swirling wildly about in synchrony with my work. Meanwhile, across the atrium, I could see my fellow writers scribbling away—an inducement in itself to resist distraction.”
If cabin fever strikes, “there's a red gate in the village that opens onto a hilly walk, and a graveyard for inspiration of the gothic kind,” she added.
Seven months after her seminar, I returned for GladFest, the library’s annual gathering of authors like Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent), Sally Magnusson (Where Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything), and Joanna Cannon (The Trouble With Goats and Sheep), who made presentations, taught masterclasses, or shared a pot of tea with their readers.
Perry told The Daily Beast that she often looks back on her writer-in-residence experience at Gladstone’s in 2013 “as the making of me as a writer.”
“I went in not really thinking of myself as a 'proper' writer,” she said. “After two months of living and working at the library I found myself able to inhabit the identity of ‘writer’ for the first time.”
“There is something unique about the space that I have never encountered elsewhere,” she said. “You are at the same time left in perfect quiet and solitude with your studies, but able to find connection and friendship with the many different kinds of people who visit the library. So over breakfast you may speak about theology with the chaplain of a naval ship, and in the evening over sherry you might discuss research into 19th-century feminism with a student from a university overseas; and whatever your religion or philosophy you're welcomed and challenged and nourished.”
“Or of course it might only be that you want to gossip and laugh and relax,” she added, “because you've spent all day bent over your books. Going there achieves a rare magic: you come out rested, because you've been spared all your household tasks and all unwanted conversation, but also mysteriously with an extra 20,000 words on your manuscript.
“It is unique and precious and I can't wait to return.”
And I, too, would cling to this inspiration when I returned last year for a sort of do-it-ourselves writing retreat with British friends. During the day I could stake out a smooth oak table in a Reading Room and plug in my laptop as sunlight sparkled through the big windows and rose through the structure’s soaring arches. In the evening, we’d gather by the fireplace to update one another on our progress.
And it’s not just Britons who use the library. About 10 percent of its visitors come from the United States, including some of the estimated 300 members of a group called U.S. Friends of Gladstone's Library, whose donations have helped purchase books and equipment.
Gladstone’s is not without controversy. During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, the library faced calls to remove statues of its founder in part because of his father’s plantation-owning past.
Peter Francis, the warden, and Charlie Gladstone, a great-great grandson of the founder, released a statement saying that “we at Gladstone’s Library believe that Black Lives Matter. We also believe that if it is the democratic will, after due process, to remove statues of William Gladstone, our founder, we would not stand in the way.” They added that Gladstone, toward the end of his life, “cited the abolition of slavery as one of the great political issues in which the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.”
Although Gladstone’s has had to close to the public during the Covid-19 pandemic, it plans to resume its Writer in Residence programs for visiting novelists, poets and playwrights and its Hearth and GladLib festivals. It is using the down-time to refurbish areas with an eye toward reopening in April 2021 with 23 en-suite bedrooms. Online events are also in the works.
At least 300 books have been started, finished, or edited at Gladstone’s in the past decade, its administrators say. And although Gladstone never lived to see the final structure, it fulfilled a dream “to bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books,” according to writings by his daughter and personal secretary Mary Drew, who died in 1927.
Susanne Fowler is a London-based freelance journalist and former global news editor in London and Paris for The New York Times who covers the arts, culture and travel. A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she has also lived and worked in Rome and Istanbul. Follow her on Twitter @SusanneFowler.