Protecting Worcestershire's Unique Library

By Hart, Linda | Contemporary Review, June 2011 | Go to article overview

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. …

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