Bristol Central Library, Waiting

Libraries and waiting are concepts that feel tied together. I picture my granddad driving me to the local High School library and waiting in the car outside. He would listen to the radio for over an hour while I browsed the book shelves and he never once complained. Didn’t rush me, didn’t mention the time.

His role was one he joked about, once introducing my dad to a colleague of his in Preston, Melbourne. A hair dresser as well, my dad asked. No, a taxi driver my granddad laughed. My grandma didn’t drive so he was the only one behind the wheel of his yellow Ford Falcon.

Waiting is what I was doing on a Sunday in front of the Bristol Central Library but I wasn’t alone. There was a gathering of us, perhaps around eight, who were waiting for the doors to open at 1pm. On a sunny day, four of sat on the benches opposite the door, two people waited by the gates, and one woman walked over to meet someone already waiting and later on they would be chatting at a table next to me about a presentation. In their early 40s perhaps they seemed productive for such a slow afternoon. The security guard in his blue shirt unlocked the chain the locked the gates and a red car drove by and unloaded a young woman who scooped in ahead of us all.

While Bristol can lay claim to having one of the earliest libraries in Britain, established in 1464, the Bristol Central Library wasn’t completed until 1906 over four centuries later. That first library, by John Carpenter, Bishop of Worcester, was a religious arrangement situated at the North West corner of All Saints Church in Corn Street. The creation of the Central Library was due largely to the bequest by the barrister Vincent Stuckey Lean of £50,000. Stuckey was born in Clifton and remained a bachelor, devoting himself to the study of arts, natural history and literature.

The firm of H. Percy Adams won the competition to build the library and the designer was Charles Holden (1875-1960). Holden also designed the Bristol Royal Infirmary (1906-12), one of his most innovative facades apparently although later covered up by uninspiring additions.

Holden’s library was built of brick faced in the best quality Hartham Park Bath Stone. The chequer work was of green quarella stone, whilst the roof and other decorative tile features were of green Westmorland slate. The structure is supported by by an internal framework of box-section girders, encased in mortar, and founded on individual massive blocks. The floors are constructed of iron and concrete, surfaced with either marble or pitch-pine blocks. This internal structure might almost said to be separate from the external cladding, and much that appears to be structurally supportive is in fact merely decorative. – Beeson (2006) Bristol Central Library and Charles Holden, p.10

The well lit areas make it one of my favourite places and the designs on the outside can bring long moments of wonder. There are Tudor rose decorations by the entrance door, and locally created sculptures by Bristol-born Charles Pibworth. 21 figures are nested in the building and represent characters from early English literature. The first lunette on the left has Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which are represented by the Miller, the Merchant and the wife of Bath among others. The central lunette shows the Venerable Bede and various literary saints. The last one shows King Alfred and some chroniclers.

From the outside the library is beautiful and while on the inside the selection of books isn’t extensive, the network of South West libraries means you can reserve anything that isn’t immediately available. There is a new cafe at the back of the ground floor and daily newspapers are available upstairs. It’s a nice place to wait or just pass the time.

3 responses to “Bristol Central Library, Waiting”

  1. Lovely post – I haven’t been inside for about 15 years,but I will now.

    1. Thank you for the lovely comment Paul. It’s one of my favourite places.

  2. Me too. My parents used to take us every week. I think the last time I went there I rented an A-Ha record *blush*. It was a while back.

    I think I’ll take a trip there this week in fact. Thanks for the lovely post Jo x

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