“No one ever became great except through many and great mistakes,” I whisper to my daughter, Nancy, reciting William Gladstone’s most famous quote as we write together on the train from London to Chester. Looking up from her laptop, my 17-year-old rolls her eyes and smirks, “alright, boomer”, putting me right in my place.
A voracious reader, Nancy has longed to be an author since she was knee high to a Philosopher’s Stone-era Harry Potter. She experienced anxiety and depression for several years and, during the Covid pandemic, found solace in writing.
Since then, Nancy has completed her first novel, The Hollow System, a dystopian version of the Skins (a television show about a group of teenagers in Bristol that ran from 2007–2013). I decided that if anything is going to drive me to finish my own novel, it’s some healthy competition from a talented teenager.
For inspiration, we’ve come to Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, North Wales. Founded by former prime minister William Gladstone in 1894, the library celebrates its 130th birthday next year. Offering comfortable rooms and wholesome food, the country’s first prime ministerial, and only residential, library is the perfect place to bring a bookworm.
As a teenager, Nancy’s not immune to the draw of social media; #BookTok is her medium of choice. A fast-growing sub-community of TikTok, the hashtag connects like-minded readers who review and discuss their favourite literature. I’ve also joined it, purely so I can discuss the extensive works of Jilly Cooper.
The #BookTok hashtag has had more than 165 billion hits and research from The Publishers Association suggests that the #BookTok phenomenon is transforming young people’s reading habits. Almost two thirds (60 per cent) of 16-25 year olds surveyed said that #BookTok has helped them discover a passion for reading and one in five said that it has helped them find a like-minded community, with many – Nancy included – making new friends through the TikTok subgroup.
In August, the inaugural TikTok Book Awards was held to honour the biggest names in literature and publishing with Alice Oseman’s graphic novel Heartstopper – now a Netflix hit – and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice among the winners. Honey & Spice, the debut novel by Bolu Babalola, won #BookTok Book of the Year and sits at the top of my to-be-read pile. Even Waterstones has a #BookTok Reads section, which is where Nancy discovered her latest favourite, Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue, the rather brave, fictional story is about a tryst between the first sons of America and Britain.
I like to think Mr Gladstone would have wholly approved of the #BookTok phenomenon. He spent more than six decades in parliament and was elected prime minister an impressive four times. Yet rather than donate his books to Oxford University, as prime ministers were wont to do, he created a public library for his 32,000-strong collection. At the age of 82, the Grand Old Man, as he was known, used a wheelbarrow to cart his thousands of books from his home in Hawarden Castle across the road to a temporary tin-roofed library in the grounds of St Deiniol’s Church.
Gladstone’s Library first welcomed overnight guests in 1906, when it moved into its current building, an appropriately austere redbrick pile. More than a century later, the 26 rooms are now decorated in Farrow & Ball’s most soothing tones, have bookish wall coverings and feature classics touches, such as Eames chairs, Anglepoise lamps and pastel-coloured Roberts radios – playing Radio 4, naturally. Nancy thoroughly approves.
Gladstone’s extensive art collection of Renaissance paintings, familial portraits and bronze busts line the arsenic-green corridors, and the stately Gladstone Room serves as a guest lounge with leather sofas, a roaring fire and bookshelves brimming with modern fiction.
However, the beating heart of Gladstone’s is the cavernous oak-beamed Reading Rooms, which hold more than 250,000 books. On entering, Nancy’s face lights up like Charlie walking into the chocolate factory.
“It smells so old, but in a good way. Like history,” she whispers in awe as she climbs the narrow spiral staircase to the vaulted mezzanine. One of the few entirely silent libraries left in the country, only overnight guests are allowed access to the Reading Rooms after hours and it stays open late into the night.
“It’s like walking into my mind, it’s the library of my dreams,” she gushes into my ear.
The vast oak shelves house the prime minister’s original collection, 22,000 of which he’s said to have read. At the back, there are two strong rooms which hold priceless first editions, including a book written and signed by Queen Mary, a papal bull from the 1300s and sheaths of Ancient Egyptian papyrus.
Drawing writers, scholars and, now, #BookTok fans, there’s usually a writer in residence, a working author who also hosts talks or workshops. On the 8 and 9 September, it hosts GladFest, the annual literary festival which celebrates its 10th anniversary. This year, it features workshops, interviews and Q&As with a variety of authors, including Joanna Cannon, Sarah Perry and Natasha Pulley.
The setting has inspired Nancy: she’s completed 2,000 words of her second novel. She’d been nonplussed about our trip before we arrived, but has fallen in love with the library – and even shares pictures of our visit on social media. I always know when Nancy’s mental health concerns are flaring up, but I’ve been pleased when the #BookTok community has offered comfort.
When the Reading Rooms eventually closes for the night, I find my girl curled up on a leather Chesterfield in the softly lit Gladstone Lounge, contently reading her book. I snuggle down beside her with my dog-eared Jilly. We’re both happy as pigs in the proverbial.
Chester is served by Avanti West Coast, Transport for Wales and LNER. Avanti West Coast offers advanced off-peak returns from London to Chester from £64.40 avantiwestcoast.co.uk. Hawarden is a 30-minute (£2) bus ride from Chester station.
Twin rooms from £150 per night, including breakfast gladstoneslibrary.org/accommodation/sleeping-with-books
GladFest 2023 runs from 8th to 9th September and some events can be accessed online gladstoneslibrary.org