Protecting Worcestershire's Unique Library
Hart, Linda, Contemporary Review
WORCESTERSHIRE has very few castles. An outstanding example is Hartlebury Castle, a Grade I listed building ten miles north of Worcester. It stands on high ground with views to the Abberley Hills, and has been a principal residence of the Bishops of Worcester for the past eight hundred years. For well over two hundred years it has also been home to an internationally important library, where books that once belonged to Alexander Pope and King George III sit on the original eighteenth-century bookshelves. This is the Hurd Library, built in 1782 as an extension to Hartlebury Castle by Bishop Richard Hurd (1720-1808) when he was resident there.
Hartlebury Castle and the Hurd Library are now facing an uncertain future. The Church Commissioners find the Castle surplus to their requirements. After years of rumours that the estate might be put up for sale to the highest bidder, the last Bishop to live at the Castle moved out on his retirement in September 2007; his successor lives near the Cathedral in Worcester. Two months later the Friends of Hartlebury Castle and the Hurd Library held a very well-attended inaugural meeting in the Castle's medieval great hall. Local residents feared the worst, especially as the Church Commissioners, who administer the property of the Church of England, were considering the sale of other historic properties. Maintaining large episcopal residences is too great a drain on Church finances and this style of living no longer suits modern bishops.
The co-founder and secretary of the Friends, Virginia Wagstaff, recently showed me around the Castle's great hall (with its magnificent arch-braced roof), the rococo saloon (whose papier-mache decorations adorn the walls), and the Gothic Revival chapel (with fan vaulting). She explained that the Friends were formed initially because of their concerns about the magnificent Library and also 'because so many Worcestershire residents were outraged at the idea that the Castle, its historic contents, the grounds, gardens and parkland might be sold to the highest bidder'. Situated in peaceful rolling countryside above the River Severn, but with the Birmingham ring-road only ten miles away, the Friends had bleak visions of an unknown buyer turning Hartlebury Castle into a luxury hotel, conference centre, expensive residential apartments or holiday time-shares.
There are two complications that the Church Commissioners will have to deal with. How do you sell a castle that houses a unique eighteenth-century library bequeathed in perpetuity to the Bishops of Worcester? And how do you sell a castle whose north wing has been home to the Worcestershire County Museum for the past 47 years? I went to see both of these gems for myself.
First complication, the Hurd Library. Like most bibliophiles, Bishop Hurd wanted his books, approximately 5,000 of them, to be close to his living quarters. So the library was built on the first floor. The long, narrow, Adam style room has a red carpet down the centre that beckons you onwards. On one side are sash windows, with fine views over the Castle moat; on the other side are beautiful bookshelves with plaster decoration. It is a magnificent room--certainly to anyone who believes that old books can be as attractive as Old Masters--while at the same time being perfectly functional. When I met the librarian, Christine Penney, she explained that 'it is a unique example of a working library, formed by an eighteenth-century scholar of wide interests, which remains on its original shelves and in the original room built for it in 1782. No other such collection has survived in the Anglican Communion'.
Richard Hurd, the son of a farmer, was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, receiving an MA in 1742 and later becoming a fellow and librarian there. The contents of the library reflect his excellent education and his interests in literature, philosophy, travel and theology as well as his friendships. Among the library's highlights are over one hundred books that were given to Bishop Hurd by George III, as well as the library of Bishop William Warburton which includes many books belonging to Alexander Pope.
For bibliophilic readers of Contemporary Review, perhaps I should be more specific. The library is home to Pope's copy of Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1613) and his copy of Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1611); Thomas Bewick's History of British birds (1791), Robert Burton's Anatomy of melancholy (1638), Johnson's Dictionary (the fourth and seventh editions), Richard Hooker's Laws of ecclesiastical polity (1594), William Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656), William Gilpin's Observations relative chiefly to picturesque beauty (1786), Hugh Latimer's Sermons (1578) and Isaac Newton's Opticks (1730). For typophiles like myself there are several books printed by John Baskerville, the great eighteenth-century printer from Birmingham, and a book from the Aldine Press in Venice, Castiglione's Il libro del cortegiano (The book of the courtier) 1528.
George III made two large donations of books, in 1782 and 1805. The 1782 collection comprised much Latin and German; that of 1805 was more varied, with a good many travel books and literary works, often in fine bindings embossed with the royal arms. The King, who greatly admired Hurd as an orthodox and pious bishop, even made a special trip to Hartlebury, the northern-most place he ever went in his kingdom. He appointed Hurd as the tutor to the Prince of Wales and tried to persuade him to become Archbishop of Canterbury
Bishop Hurd, who was unmarried, made special mention of his library in his will, which states: 'I give and bequeath to my Successor in the See of Worcester and all succeeding Bishops of that See for the time being forever the use of all my books which I shall leave in the Library of the Episcopal House or Castle of Hartlebury at my death and also all the furniture of the same library'. Lawyers would no doubt disagree as to exactly what this means. Can the books be moved to a place where his Successors have access while the library shelves remain at the Castle with no access possible? When announcing Miss Penney's appointment as the Hurd Librarian in March 2009 the current Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, stated that the Hurd Library 'is a treasure of international significance'. But do the Church Commissioners appreciate this?
Second complication, the Worcestershire County Museum. It extends over three floors in the Castle's north wing, including rooms that were previously the servants' quarters. The museum tells the story of the people of Worcestershire, and covers many periods and themes including social, domestic, transport and educational history. There are period rooms focusing on life during Victorian times and Worcestershire's role in the Civil War. The museum's setting in an historic castle, adjacent to a nature reserve and picnic areas, is perfect for families and school parties. There are outdoor exhibits too--a walled garden, transport gallery and cider mill--and a year-round programme of events, exhibitions, walks and talks.
Worcestershire has been leasing the north wing of Hartlebury Castle from the Church Commissioners since 1964. Would a new owner insist that the museum move out? Presumably Birmingham businessmen buying smart apartments, or holidaymakers buying time-shares, would not want parties of schoolchildren swarming around the north wing of the Castle. But ironically, the museum's presence in the Castle illustrates the point that old buildings, usually for financial reasons, must sometimes find new uses. The museum's shop and reception area, for example, are located in the former stable block, which was once used as a college for clergy in the early twentieth century and a recovery hospital during World War I.
Since the creation of the Friends of Hartlebury Castle and the Hurd Library at the end of 2007 there has been progress. Initially the Friends worked very hard to assist Worcestershire County Council, which was considering purchasing the castle. By the summer of 2008 it became clear that the Council could not proceed with this idea. There was then a great danger that the Castle would fall into commercial hands, public access would be lost and the very existence of the Hurd Library would be threatened.
'The Friends', Virginia Wagstaff told me, 'decided to explore the possibility of setting up a building preservation trust to acquire the castle and estate, and give them a complete new lease of life for the twenty-first century'. The Hartlebury Castle Preservation Trust was founded in December 2008, to preserve the entire estate for education and enjoyment by the public, ensure public access to the buildings, and provide an historical and cultural centre of excellence for everyone.
The Trust combines the best of two worlds: it is managed by dedicated volunteer trustees (who have expertise in architectural heritage, business planning, events management, finance and education) but they know it is crucial to obtain and act on expert professional advice about buying, restoring, preserving and running an important historical estate like this. Alison Brimelow, the present Trust chairman, tells me that 'Membership fees and donations to the Trust will never be enough to buy Hartlebury Castle, but we use the money we raise to obtain advice on building conservation, fund-raising, publicity and forward planning for this major heritage project'.
The Trust is a company limited by guarantee and registered with the Charity Commission. It is grateful that the Church Commissioners have given permission for it to hold fund-raising events in the state rooms of the Castle. The one I attended--an afternoon concert of Elizabethan lute music--gave more than a hint of how the Trust's volunteers hope to rescue these empty rooms, bring them back to life, and enable the public to visit and enjoy this beautiful building. I spoke after the concert to former Trust chairman Sue Beeson, who explained that 'the Trust has drawn up a business plan that envisages Hartlebury Castle being used not just for concerts but for exhibitions, functions, workshops, lectures and educational events. We would work closely with the County Museum next door'. Since then plans have developed significantly, based on the idea that a close working partnership between the Trust and the Museum would benefit both organisations and give Hartlebury a secure future.
Many people, on seeing Hartlebury for the first time, are shocked that the Church Commissioners are willing to dispose of a building like this. Alison Brimelow told me that 'Hartlebury Castle's significance lies in the fact that it has belonged to the Church almost as long as Christianity has been a presence in Worcestershire, since AD 860. That is over 1100 years. There can be very few properties which have been in continuous Church ownership in England for such a length of time. To divorce the Hurd Library and its contents from Hartlebury Castle would be a major cultural loss. The books and that splendid room are still in the space commissioned in 1781--a unique circumstance for an English Episcopal library'.
However, the Church Commissioners have said that they will put the Castle up for sale on the open market in spring 2012. The Trust is actively trying to raise the money to purchase the Castle. It is seeking financial help from various funding bodies including the Heritage Lottery Fund. 'The Trust wants to ensure the building's preservation, and share its past with the public, while finding uses for it which will serve present and future community needs', said Sue Beeson. 'We have been encouraged by the support we have received from the Georgian Group, English Heritage, the National Trust and local civic societies'.
Hartlebury Castle and its past is so important--historically, socially, architecturally. It is inconceivable to think that one day I might drive through Hartlebury village, turn down the tree-lined drive, and find at the end of it a hotel, apartment complex or conference centre.
See www.hartleburycastletrust.org--Guided tours for pre-booked groups are available, enabling visitors to see the Hurd Library, the Castle State Rooms, the Chapel and the Bishop's House. For further information and booking contact Virginia Wagstaff at email@example.com or phone 01299 250883. All proceeds from the tours are divided between the Hurd Library and the Hartlebury Castle Preservation Trust. Donations to the Trust can be made by going to http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/charities/hartleburycastletrust. For Worcestershire County Museum see www.worcestershire.gov.uk/museum or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Linda Hart is a writer, editor and lecturer who lives in Malvern, Worcestershire.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Protecting Worcestershire's Unique Library. Contributors: Hart, Linda - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 293. Issue: 1701 Publication date: June 2011. Page number: 227+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.