Sometimes with books, it’s all about the romance of the bookish lifestyle. At various points in my life I’ve wanted to be like Colette, or Anais Nin, living complicated lives, while writing astonishing books. I’ve dreamed of living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York, during the Blondie, Bowery, bankrupt city era, as some kind of resident writer, documenting the rock ‘n’ roll lives being lived in there. I’ve fantasised about ‘doing an Agatha Christie’ and disappearing for days on end, leaving the whole nation to speculate about where I’ve gone, when in fact I was just holed up in a room, putting words onto paper.
I want to write. I define myself as a writer, But in reality, most of the time life gets in the way. Over this last year, and without wanting to intrude on the privacy of my loved ones, life hasn’t just got in the way: existence has been an attention-seeking, kicking and screaming, draining and all-encompassing rollercoaster. Staying upright has been hard enough: focus and words on the page haven’t been a priority at all. And I am absolutely hopeless at writing without a defined deadline or a specific reason.
But I have a book in my head, and it needs to be written. I’m getting on my own nerves now, not having written it.
I turned 50 earlier this year, and my mum and stepdad’s gift to me was two nights away, anywhere within reason that I wanted to go. I couldn’t go around my birthday itself (see the above point about life), but I knew straight away that what I wanted more than anything else was to buy myself some time to write, and in a location conducive to that. So, I booked myself in at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire. Built in 1902, it used to be described as the UK’s only residential library, but I noticed that’s changed now to being described as the finest. I have no idea where the other ones are. A library that exists for people to work in, that you can then stay over at? Yes, I jumped on that one.
I decided to add a night and stay over in Chester the night before: one of my favourite places in the UK. It’s such a great, historic, admittedly a bit square-feeling, but I quite like that these days, city. I took myself off to the Storyhouse arts venue (another library) and the cinema in there to see the ever-brilliant Carol Morley’s latest film ‘Typist Artist Pirate King’, ate some food in the restaurant there and went to bed nice and early.
The next morning it was a stormy day and the winds were extremely high. I walked along the canal to Waitrose to stock up on wine and grub for my trip (because you have to choose a fancy supermarket on such occasions: it is the law). The water was very nearly at the top of the canal walls, and the wind was making strange shapes in it: it all felt exciting and as if something was about to happen. I jumped on the bus outside the station to Hawarden, as instructed by the library website, and the friendly Welsh bus driver, who looked as if he should be in ZZ Top, assured me that he’d let me know where to get off. As it happened, he didn’t need to: Hawarden, which is about 40 minutes away, is so pretty and self-defined that I knew straight away when we were there.
I found the library straight away (this is a very small village), dropped my bags inside and headed straight out into the grounds to make the most of a stomp around in the high winds to blow the cobwebs away, and before they got any stronger and became dangerous. I could already feel the last year of stress and tension slipping away: my shoulders were dropping, my teeth were unclenching: it was a truly physical reaction to my environment. This trip was necessary.
Then check in time came, and I was absolutely delighted by my room, which felt old and comfortable, but with really lovely design elements too, not least the wallpaper which was made from illustrations of rows of books. There are no televisions: I think this is to do with maintaining an air of studious silence in the rooms. I cheated and watched few things with headphones on my laptop: I suspect a lot of people do. After full days of writing I was too tired to read, but didn’t disturb anyone else, so no guilt.
I unpacked and then whizzed over to the all-important, famous reading rooms. The way this library works is that the reading rooms are a silent space, fully intended for working and contemplation. It’s a prime ministerial library: many of the books were from Gladstones own collection. Most of the individual books weren’t appealing to me personally, but that didn’t matter: I was there to write, not read. And it doesn’t mean that for somebody out there these books aren’t a joy. I preferred the upstairs spaces, where the shelves are laid out in a way that you feel as if you have a separate booth, looking out over the rest of the library, but all yours. It turned out that a lot of other people seem to like these too, as I discovered at 9.10 the next morning, when there were already none left for me. Lesson learnt. I (silently) took some great photos of this space, but they all have people in them, which I hadn't thought about at the time, so it feels wrong to share on here.
I turned my computer on, turned off the sound and just put my head down and planned and wrote, for several hours at a time. The library’s pretty compact, so whenever I fancied a break, I just popped down to the other end of the building to the café and the comfy lounge; think armchairs, a roaring fire etc. The café is always bustling, and provides a great contrast to the reading room.
I didn’t really get into any conversations, because I wanted to stay in my own head while I was there, but the other residents and readers (you’re called a reader if you just use the place, but don’t stay there) looked like an eclectic and interesting bunch. It’s a non-ageist place: there were several women there who looked maybe in their twenties and thirties, and then other guests who were clearly in their Autumn years. The café’s nice: one great thing about this library is the all the staff seem happy to be there, and are pleasant and helpful: the library won a ‘small employer of the year’ award this year. Any profits from money spent on the café goes towards maintaining the place and preserving it for future generations. I ate a lot of biscuits there, and it was nice to feel good about my contribution to the cause as I filled my face.
In the evenings, if you want to stay in the reading rooms then you can until 10pm, but my brain power was used up well before that. Residents can eat in the restaurant, but as I’d had breakfast and lunch there, both night I took the three minute walk instead to one of my favourite UK pubs, the Glynne Arms. I know the Glynne because my partner’s family live very close to Hawarden and use this venue for special occasions. It is a pub done exactly right: there’s great art on the walls, the food is ace: they pride themselves on sustainable, local-sourced food, the staff are friendly and the vibe is villagey, in that there are people in there chatting away who obviously live around there and have used this place for their entire lives, as will their ancestors have done because it’s been at the heart of the village since 1812. It’s the kind of pub that you feel completely fine to eat in there on your own (this stuff matters, especially as a woman). It's as if they knew I was coming: their blue colouring is the exact same shade that we use for Bopcap Branding purposes. And the pause from the library stopped me from feeling institutionalised.
I left the library on the Wednesday morning, already planning when I can come again and keep going. I’m a creature of habit, and I suspect that this place doesn’t change a great deal, which I welcome in order to be able to write. I headed back to Chester with a ton of writing done, but just as importantly, feeling a sense of mental freedom that I’ve struggled to achieve for a while.
Thank you Gladstones and all who sail with you: I’ll be back.