January. It’s a tricky month, isn’t it. On the one hand a clean slate, blank page of a month. And on the other, after all the indulgence and fuzzy feels of Christmas, a bit of a bucket of cold water. Traditionally, January is the month of forcing yourself into fitness, of self denial and lofty goals that may or may not be realistic.
I say no more of that, thank you. January should be a cuddle of a month, a time of rest and self care until we are ready to skip into Spring. There are many ways to find that January-as-cuddle state of mind. My list would include snuggling with the dog, going for a sauna, binge watching something light and fluffy on Netflix and visiting a proper old fashioned library.
A proper, old fashioned library like the Lit & Phil in Newcastle.
Despite the fact I grew up in Newcastle, I had no idea until fairly recently that it was home to the largest independent library outside London. In my defence, the Lit & Phil even refers to itself as Newcastle’s secret library. How it has remained a bit of a secret is a puzzle, given that this literary hideaway was established in 1825 and that it enjoys a plum location just a hop and a skip from the city’s Central Station.
Interestingly, although the Lit & Phil of today is a library of epic beauty and content ,it didn’t set out to become so. The original society existed in spirit before it existed in bricks and mortar. Beginning in the 1700s, the society organised meetings across the city for those hungry for debate, lectures and experiments. The library itself didn’t come into being until the 1800s.
The spirit of the Lit & Phil Society brought together those with vison, the pioneers and inventors. The society attracted some of the finest minds of the times. George Stephenson demonstrated his Miners Safety Lamp here and Joseph Swan, an early developer of the humble light bulb, made the library the first public room to be lit by electric light.
As the years ticked by, the society amassed an ever-growing collection of books and artefacts. They needed a place to call home, and so was born the Lit & Phil that makes such a wonderful place to visit today. When the present library opened doors in 1825, it housed 8,000 volumes. Today it is home to around 200,000 with more being added year on year.
The modern day library is home to much more than books…although you’ll find plenty of them and of every sort, if that’s what you are after. The largest music collection in the North of England can be found here along with many a quirky or curious item. In no particular order, things that caught my eye included: a taxidermy owl, a bookcraft version of the library building and some old maps.
And it isn’t just all the lovely, physical things. True to the society’s roots, the neoclassical building that now houses a library is also the setting for a lively events programme packed with lectures, live music, author evenings and workshops. There’s always something going on. And not just for the grown ups. Children have their own space here in the form of the Children’s Library and that puts on its own events aimed at younger visitors. This really is a place that welcomes all.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, there is also coffee and cake. The Coffee Hatch has got to be, alongside the library itself, the city’s best kept secret. Tea, coffee, biscuits and cake served with a smile in such a beautiful place. Warm drinks and a warm welcome.
I was intrigued by the idea of visiting the Lit & Phil, but not without reservation. I’d spotted an image of the beautiful interior on Instagram and couldn’t believe this bookish beauty was right in the heart of my hometown. Why the reservation? Well, I made the mistake of making an assumption. Surely such a beautiful library, filled with beautiful things and keeper of such an illustrious past would be a little stuffy. Unwelcoming to the general public. Elitist.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The library is genuinely welcoming to all. The reader, the curious, the dreamers, the seekers of knowledge, those who just have some time to spend. Staff and volunteers couldn’t be friendlier and it’s free to visit.
Whether you are a visitor to the city or a resident, seeking out a certain book or just have time to kill before you catch the train, the library is an enchanting and welcoming place. Plenty of celebrated figures have passed through the doors including Oscar Wilde, Val McDermid, Alexander McCall Smith and Michael Palin. Isn’t it time you added your name to that list? Go on, you’ll be in good company.
Not to mention,it’s the perfect place to escape any January Blues.