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Sleeping in the Stacks?: Gladstone's Library in Wales

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Memorial libraries have been in the news of late. The admirers of the late Margaret Thatcher have begun raising money for a library and research center in her memory, and last week the George W. Bush Presidential Library opened in Dallas, joining the libraries honoring the first President Bush and Lyndon Baines Johnson here in my native Texas. All are worthy places, and well worthy of traveler's time and attention.

But while presidential libraries (and the proposed Thatcher Library) hold an appeal for all of us enamored of books, history, and travel, they are far from a new idea. In the picturesque Welsh village of Hawarden, about three hours travel time from London, a stunningly beautiful residential library has stood as a national monument to British prime minister William E. Gladstone for over a century. It's a place filled with history, a museum to Gladstone, but also a comfortable and economical place to stay.

Gladstone's Library (for many years known as "St. Deiniol's Library," after the historic parish church which stands hard by), is indeed a residential library. That means a visitor may study, write, or simply sit contentedly among the 250,000 volumes -- but may also enjoy a home-cooked meal, sip a gin and tonic over newspapers in the common room, or retire to a private en-suite bedroom for a nap, to call home, or to continue reading in privacy. As a working writer, I've gone many places to work -- Canterbury Cathedral, New Mexico's Ghost Ranch, Washington D.C.'s National Cathedral -- but I have never found anything as appealing as this strange and beautiful institution in Wales where guests from all over the world come to read, write, tour Wales and Northern England, and visit with other guests over family-style meals or a glass of wine.

The Guardian describes the library wing accurately: "The library is situated along one wing. It is an enchanting chamber, the size of a chapel, panelled in wood with tiny stairs twisting to a magical first-floor gallery. It looks like Hollywood's idea of an ancient library and yet it is a humble, working building with an authentic aroma of polish, leather and the slightly damp whiff of old tomes." Light passes into the reading room from different angles at different times of day, rain and sun pass in quick succession outside, and whatever desk you may occupy, you may feel that there is no more beautiful place in all the world.

The 28 bedrooms (in the residential wing along with the common room, kitchen, and dining room) are comfortable, stylish, simple. Many have gorgeous views of the next door churchyard or of the library grounds, which are spacious and laid out as an English garden filled with flowers and statuary. The room rates (beginning at only 30 pounds a night for scholars, published authors, and clergy) include an ample continental breakfast (porridge, cereals, toast, fruit) and supper. One would -- and I often have -- paid more in London simply for a meal; this is recklessly affordable lodging.

On weekends, an excellent full English breakfast may be purchased (forego the black pudding, a blood sausage, is my suggestion). Lunch and tea are also offered at the Library's coffee shop and restaurant. The evening meal, served cafeteria style, is filling and tasty. Chef Alan Hurst specializes in simple but hearty British and French dishes, locally and organically sourced whenever possible. The lamb, pork, and beef are fine, vegetarian options are always available, and menus vary enough that one can stay a substantial amount of time at the Library without eating the same meal twice. Chef Alan created a romantic dinner for my girlfriend and I one night by serving Coq au Vin, and in honor of my son Chandler's two week visit, he offered one authentic English dessert after another, night after night, from Bakewell Tart to Queen of Puddings.

The nearby environs are beautiful and made for walking. Gladstone's guests have privileges in the nearby Bilberry Forest (on the Gladstone Estate), and I start most mornings with a run through the pastures and woods before breakfast. Bus and train connections make it easy to visit the British Northwest, North Wales, or even take the Dublin ferry, and Chester, 7 km away, is worth a day or two all on its own for its Roman wall and ruins, its fine cathedral, and its beautiful public park.

But one of the most compelling reasons to go to Gladstone's turns out to be one I least desired or expected -- the other guests. Unlike a typical hotel, where you avoid contact with anyone, the writers, scholars, tourists, and others visiting Gladstone's become temporary family. You take breakfast and supper at long tables together, share a drink at the end of the working day, watch football or Doctor Who with the likeminded in a conference room, visit one of the local pubs (three within a block or two!) for a pint or three with them. I've stayed for several months at Gladstone's, all told, and have met some of the most interesting people I'll ever encounter.

I've had dinner and talked about the Celts with the writer Esther de Waal, learned about Franciscan peacemaking from a monk from New Zealand, shared breakfast with the Catholic bishop of Dublin, talked politics and pop culture with a feminist art historian from Edinburgh.

I took a class on Islam filled with fascinating people from the Christian, Muslim, and secular worlds. I taught a class on writing dialogue to students from across the UK, including a writer for the BBC, a much-published romance novelist, and a retired bus driver.

I watched England play Sweden with a dozen sixteen-year-old boys from the thousand-year-old Warwick School.

I have made lifelong friends while staying at Gladstone's Library, and whiled away many an hour away from home learning about the lives of people very different from -- and very similar -- to mine.

There's no place like it in the world. If you're a writer or scholar, if you're interested in history or countryside, if you need a base to tackle North Wales or nearby Liverpool, or if you just want a place to step away from the world for a day or two or three, you owe it to yourself to come to Gladstone's Library.

"It's like Hogwarts," my teenage son has said, seeking the highest praise he could offer, but while close, that's not quite right.

Gladstone's Library is better than Hogwarts.

Yes, you will be fed bountifully, sleep beautifully, meet interesting people, learn something if you're not careful.

But Gladstone's Library, while magical and unlikely, is absolutely and completely for real.

(Gladstone's Library: visit http://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/ for more information; email for reservations at Enquiries@gladlib.org or call 01244 532350)