“Can I get a ticket to Hawarden?”
The bus driver looked at me in incomprehension. “Where?”
“Hawarden. Where Gladstone’s Library is.”
His face brightened. “Oh, HAR-DEN! You should have said.”
Arriving at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden (pronounced, as I now know to my cost, “Har-den”) is a revelatory experience. It’s only a few miles from Chester, but it’s set in a bucolic village in North Wales, the kind of place where the general store will sell you a cornucopia of local produce and where the (excellent) pubs know all the locals’ names, preferred drinks and, by the sounds of it, intimate involvement in various scandals. Yet it is the far from scandalous library that dominates the village, both literally and metaphorically. If getting here is something of an odyssey, then one’s eventual arrival represents little less than a homecoming.
Gladstone’s Library is unique in two key respects. It’s the only residential library in Britain, and probably in the world, although this doesn’t mean, alas, that residents hunker down at night in a bivouac with the books; instead, they trot along to one of the 26 bedrooms, which are spartan in their comforts but perfectly pleasant, and sleep peaceably there at the end of a day’s intellectual toil. It is also the only equivalent that we have in this country of an American-style presidential library, although its foundation was considerably less formal and rather more eccentric. William Gladstone, a resident of Hawarden, wished to share his vast collection of books with the less fortunate and intellectually curious – as his daughter Mary put it, “he wished to bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books” – and so, at the age of 85, he spent £40,000 of his own money on founding and building the library that bore his name, obligingly carrying 32,000 of his own volumes three-quarters of a mile between his home, Hawarden Castle, and the temporary structure that housed them.