So we spent July in Britain and it was wonderful. Part of it was getting to spend time with people we have missed; part of it was that I got to do some proper academicking, going to a couple of conferences and spending time with a medieval manuscript in the British Library; but part of it was just enjoying being back in Britain, the feeling of the climate, the stones of the walls and buildings, the familiar trees and plants, the newspapers, the TV, the shops.
Our four weeks were quite tightly scheduled, as I suppose tends to be the case for expats returning to the homeland. Along with the conferences there were two weddings, and, for M, visits to several manuscript libraries, and then we tried to pack seeing as many scattered friends in along the way as was consistent with avoiding total exhaustion. We got to the point where I was sending what I felt were vaguely insulting emails to anyone else who expressed an interest in seeing us, saying ‘sorry, far too busy’. Anyway, in the final week we had pencilled in two or three nights to do ‘something nice’ involving just the two of us.
Which somehow transmuted into spending three nights in a residential library just outside Chester where I put in two solid days working on my book and we ate cafeteria meals. Er. Having similarly spent the first two days of our honeymoon three years ago working in a library, I don’t think I’m going to be up for a Wife of the Year award any time soon.
Nevertheless, it was lovely. And the whole experience was so British that it was a perfect salve to homesickness. Gladstone’s Library is in the village of Hawarden, just a few miles into Wales. Immediate bonus: Hawarden is a pronunciation conundrum that turns out to be one of those troublesome proper nouns where you ignore a syllable and say [hɔːdən]. (Or ‘Horden’, roughly.) Fitting into that nice confuse-the-uninitiated-or-American category right next to Edinburgh, Leicester and Berkshire.
Then, it turns out that the library – which from the website I had imagined to be in the middle of nowhere – is right next to a lovely parish church whose history goes back to the twelfth century (though the building is Victorian), with a lych gate and a Burne-Jones window and a jumbled graveyard full of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century names. We wandered round the churchyard early on Sunday evening when the light was all golden and glowing, fighting our way through wild flowers, reading the sad stories on the stones, and felt it was the perfect place.
As for Gladstone’s Library, there is a bit of subterfuge going on here. On the website it describes itself as a ‘place dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions.’ Turns out Gladstone actually established it as a centre of Christian study, and the place is overflowing with vicars – there is always at least one chaplain in residence, but such is the supply, we were told, that he only has to lead a couple of the week’s daily services. Our bedroom was named after a bishop, and the visitor’s book in there was full of people recording pious reflections about how the experience had brought them closer to God. Still, in true Church of England style you could more or less ignore all of this – no one tried to proselytise to us, just explained that they were vicars when we asked over dinner what they were up to there. Just as many of the other visitors were writing academic or mainstream books, or simply their diaries.
We found this out because it’s one of those places where you’re expected to talk to your fellow guests over dinner – and, in fact, afterwards in the common room, which is very sub-Oxbridge, with huge sofas, tea, coffee, newspapers and an honesty bar featuring port, sherry and all that stuff. Oh, and a couple of cases full of Gladstone memorabilia: most excitingly the axe he used to chop down trees as a means of sublimating his lust.
The cafeteria food is actually fantastic. The so-called Continental breakfast is actually toast and porridge and hence could not be more British if it tried, with jars of locally-made marmalade and jam on each table. Dinner might be a pork chop in a leek, cream and mushroom sauce (or a vegetarian alternative), with trifle for pudding. One night there was treacle tart with custard, and the cheerful but firm kitchen staff refused to serve it out at the same time as the main course, because it would go cold.
The library itself was a great place to finish my book. It too feels Oxbridgey: more specifically, like a college founded in the nineteenth century that doesn’t have quite the endowment it would like but is good at putting on a brave face and making ends meet. The main room is the classic two-storey set up, all wooden railings and single desks in each bay of books. To borrow a book you fill out two halves of a paper slip in one of the borrowing books that are left all around the library; tear off one half and place it in the gap your book leaves on the shelf; and leave the stub in the book. It is even more antiquated than the Bodleian system. The rolling stacks have a leaking roof, and there is a notice requesting you to roll them back into the original configuration after you are finished so that the rain doesn’t get into the books. The selection of twentieth-century literature involves five times more of C S Lewis than anyone else. In fact the whole of the Eng Lit section is skewed towards the religious, but there was enough there for me to resolve all my worries about modern practice in subheadings as I did the last of my revisions and finished my book in time for my publisher’s deadline.
The bed was, I have to say, pretty uncomfortable. There is something quite celibate about the whole place and I’m not sure the double bed was used to accommodating two people, one of whom was pregnant. But the thriftily puritanical note that they would not be changing your towels or making your bed on a daily basis because it’s a residential library, not a hotel, felt like home. As did the sweet woman who told us we were quite welcome to delete the voluntary donation to the upkeep of the library from our bill since we were feeling skint.
The morning before we went to the library we clambered all over the stone walls and towers of Harlech castle. The morning we left we had breakfast at a Little Chef. And so my longing for Britain was at least partially sated, and by the time we got back to Chicago I was able to half-think of it as coming home.