Approaching Gladstone’s Library from the drive in the early evening: a municipal-style big red building, a bit like a women’s college at Oxford (all Victorian, compared to the older, traditionally male colleges of ‘dreaming spires’ fame). The moment the door opened, the association was complete: a smell of school dinners.
A very peculiar mix of old and new, the overall effect was eccentric. Photographs on the website have been carefully curated to give the impression of a boutique hotel, but in the flesh the place is schizophrenic. Someone has come along and specified modern ceiling lights, and there is MFI/Shaker style furniture for a clean pared down look in the bedrooms, with crisp white bedding and small Welsh blankets and (specifically name-checked on the website) Roberts radios (nice, although really, who cares?). But nothing fits properly, nothing is installed properly, the carpet looks as though it came from Staples as a job lot with some filing cabinets, and I wanted to weep when I saw that every one of the (beautiful!) pendant lights in the corridors (on all day on a ferociously bright sunny day) had on it a smear or two of ceiling paint. Modern bathroom fittings (possibly bought from a shop we saw in a nearby town, with the uncharming name of Bogs and Basins) looked the part. But the shower stalls in both our bathrooms (no baths) were so very, very tiny that my son (slim verging on lanky) laughed as he told me he had not been able to bend to wash his lower legs. I admitted I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in at all, and he speculated that if I were to try, I might find the water rising from the waist up, and manage to drown standing up in a shower. Fearing he could be right (though I like to think I would have the presence of mind to turn the tap off as the water approached my neck) I opted to wash at the basin and forego showering and shampooing. (Any excuse.)
In the grounds are some statues that give the eerie effect of being in Dr Who. The ones that kill you if you blink, or something. Eerie, but fun.
Dinner is served, canteen style, from 6.45 to 7.15. On the first day, put off by the smell, we gave it a miss, walking into Hawarden to ‘gastro-pub’, The Glynn Arms, which had a friendly atmosphere and good food and drink. There are a few decent pubs and restaurants in the neighbourhood, as a quick look on Tripadvisor shows. After a tiring day out, the following night we ate in: a perfectly acceptable school dinner plate of ham and boiled veg for £7.50 (add £2.95 for a couple of scoops of ice cream), before retiring to the drawing room where we were able to help ourselves to tea and coffee and eavesdrop further on the conversations of the other residents. These seemed to be mainly vicars and academic theologians from around the world, any of whom would have been perfectly at home in a 1950s sitcom. Released from the silent library, they talked about books, other people, and gardening. Religion aside (the books and the people all religious, it seemed), exactly my sort of conversation; indeed I came close to interrupting to correct one group on the subject of pruning roses, but held my tongue.
It did remind me of my (women’s) college, Somerville, and in a good way. The library itself, with its comfy old leather armchairs and musty smell; the lovely rattly old windows letting in great drafty gusts; the old, paint encrusted radiators and pipes pumping out scalding heat. My room was a small single, with very bright task lighting at a neat desk. It was like being a student again, and I was very happy whenever I was a student.
If I were a vicar, or a writer, researching, or attending a course here (they have lots), I would be charmed by it, as indeed I was. I’m delighted to have been. So much nicer than a boutique hotel!
PS We drove to Portmeirion, a place I had long wanted to see. It was a gloriously sunny day, so we probably saw it at its best, yet, in my opinion: not worth the trip. ‘Disney does Italy’, on the Welsh coast, with a few shops selling (mostly seconds of) pottery, and a random assortment of other ‘gifts’. (I say this as someone who liked Disneyland when I was there!) Oh, and lots of stuff about a 60s TV programme called The Prisoner, set there apparently, but completely lost on me and presumably anyone else under 60. Portmeirion reminded me also a bit of a busy day in Rock, Cornwall, where all you can really do is allow yourself to shuffle along with the crowd. We were there in early April; in summer, it must be intolerable.