It's hard to know what to do for the best sometimes isn't it? Stay home and do digging or get on a train and ride.....
Even though the forecast promised near perfect spring weather the temptation to indulge in an 'away-day' was too great; by 9.00am I was watching the countryside rush by as I headed north to Manchester. Pretty skipping lambkins petered out as we approached suburbia somewhere near Alderley Edge and a familiar landscape of cramped back gardens with the skeletal detritus of last summer's barbies hove into view. Home ground this - I note that, from my seat at least, little seems to have changed. A little further down the line and the city's skyline, spiked with cranes, comes into view.
I meet friend J - for what will turn out to be an excellent day - at Piccadilly Station, a place I remember as a cold, dank and filthy place with the ever-present throb of loud and stinking engines. It's now a shiny temple to the Gods of travel and shopping - an edifice of soaring glass and steel. OK, there are still trains and the travelling public and I doubt it's squeaky clean but it feels a better place to be.
Our destination is the John Rylands Library on Deansgate. I am ashamed to say that in 30 years+ of living in Manchester I had never been through its doors. A degree in graphic design and an interest in print, typography and calligraphy never got me there. My only excuse is that it was on the doorstep and there was always tomorrow - and somehow I never made it. (We've all been there haven't we?) And after today I ask myself 'why?'
It is, as it says on the wall outside, a library - a working library. If you were after the latest bonk-buster or who-dunnit then you might courteously be directed to the Central Library up the road - but books and printed materials it has - enough, when shelved to stretch the 10 miles from Deansgate to Stockport. Old, rare and beautiful of course but the archiving of electronic communications are considered too. As part of the University of Manchester its primary aim is to support the academic study of students and staff but a policy of accessibility means the collections are open to researchers, schools and the public.
The building which houses the collection is fantastic - a Gothic construction of red sandstone, dimly lit corridors, with much ornate dark wood in the Reading Rooms. In contrast the recent extension to the side and rear is light and airy. The juxtaposition of the two is not uncomfortable at all. A recent Lottery funded restoration project has also breathed new life onto the old stones but removed none of the magic.
A small notice taped in the lift advertised a short tour of the building and the opportunity to look closely at some of the Library's 'objects'. As it happened we were the only people to take advantage of this so we had a very personal guided tour. Though a door just off the Reading Room a selection of books were laid out for us on those wedge-shaped foam pads beloved of conservators. Understandably this was to be a 'hands-off' experience. Our gloved guide turned the crackly vellum pages of a medieval illuminated manuscript - the colours still bright and crisp and the gold leaf brilliant. We moved on to an early example of printing using movable type - an innovation which enabled mass production, mass communication and ultimately the dissemination of knowledge to the Common Man. (Look where that's got us.....)
Then on to a slightly gruesome surgical treatise followed by the diary of an lady writing in the late c18th. She describes her society life and the occasion of the first hot air balloon in London. Other reports of this event exist - but here is a very personal account. A sort of c19th 'Vogue' is next. Bound in tooled leather the pages inside show the fashions of the day - swagged curtains, fashion a la mode, and for the gentlemen, the latest market reports.
We read a hastily composed letter from publisher Charles Dickens to novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, excusing some changes made to her manuscript of Cranford. (I believe she was not best pleased.) Finally we saw the elegant script and colourful illustrations of a Persian book. Its library stamps and book plates give some idea of its history and the route it had taken before coming to the shelves here in Manchester.
In due course we leave this hushed academic paradise behind and are out on the street again, to be swallowed up by the chaos of city life.
It's all been most marvelous and memorable. Simply looking round the building would have been a treat but seeing these wonderful artefacts was the icing on the cake. It cost us £2.50 each which must represent the bargain of the week.