St Deniol’s Library
This summer I visited Gladstone’s Library, St Deniol’s at Hawarden in Flintshire. Staying for a few nights for a conference, the experience was quite unique – I have never been to a residential library with accommodation before, and the setting and atmosphere could aptly be described (to steal a phrase used by Thomas Carlyle) as a “temple of peaceful industry”.
In addition to the wonderful building (dating back to 1902), the Library Collections were fascinating and, as Lord Runcie of Cuddesdon wrote, also quite “intimidating”. The only Prime Ministerial Library in the UK, St Deniol’s houses the vast collection of books which belonged to the great Victorian Liberal W.E. Gladstone (1809-1898), Premier of Britain no fewer than four times. The 25,000 printed items in the collection, many of which contain the annotations of the Grand Old Man himself, testify to Gladstone’s immense intellectual activity and wide ranging literary interests.
Of a selection of letters kept in the collection, one in particular stood out to me. Gladstone was well known for his belief in “rational recreation”, that is, the practice of undertaking activities in his spare time which would refresh and renew the body before work was recommenced. For Gladstone, this took the form of tree-felling at his Estate in Hawarden, which he continued with enthusiasm until he was 81! It seems that many locals, and some from further afield, travelled to the estate to watch the great politician felling the trees, and one lady visitor wrote to Gladstone afterwards to express how much she had enjoyed the experience. Indeed, she had been fortunate enough to collect a fragment of the oak tree which Gladstone had cut down that day and had since had it framed in a glass cabinet and displayed in a prime position at her house. As such, she wrote to Gladstone, she was the envy of her family and friends who all admired the wood-cutting and was often called upon by strangers eager to see the artefact…It is unclear whether Gladstone replied to the letter or not!
While scholarly practices, forms of recreation, and public engagement with politicians have all undoubtedly changed since Gladstone’s day, the Library remains a monument to High Victorian culture and well worth a visit in the 21st century to anyone who wishes to retreat for a few days to think and write!