The second weekend in September in the UK is when various museums, libraries and assorted buildings and places open their doors (or gates) to the public for free, as part of the Heritage Open Days– a big heritage festival involving thousands of volunteers, and celebrating our history.
Many of the locations are not accessible to the public at other times of the year so these open days are the only opportunity to see more.
Some require booking in advance and the most popular can fill their numbers weeks before the day.
Every year I have wanted to visit the Bromley House Library, but all available places had gone, so this year I was delighted to finally get the opportunity to attend, courtesy of the Library’s decision not to have bookings. Though there was a limit on how many could go into the building at one time, as the attic rooms are small, and one room had a strict limit of 15 people maximum.
Bromley House is only a short walk from the current public Central Library on Angel Row in Nottingham City Centre. Only the entrance to Bromley House at pavement level can be seen, though look up and you can see the frontage to the house, it’s necessary to venture inside to see the scale of the building, even though its original footprint has been disrupted.
The townhouse was built in 1752 for a member of the Smith banking family. A number of these family members became MPs for Nottingham, and elsewhere, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The building is Grade II* listed and thankfully retains many of the original features, and later nineteenth century additions such as the spiral staircase.
The library was formerly called the Nottingham Subscription Library, founded in 1816, though it did not move to Bromley House until 1822, but with fewer books than the library now holds – 40,000+.
In the early decades of the 19th century, members bought a share for 5 guineas, then paid a 2 guinea subscription each year.
The actual plate that was used to print the shares was on display in the Neville Hoskins Reading Room (it has a wonderful Rococo style plaster ceiling). The plate has a big cross scored through it, as was practice to make it unusable once shares were no longer issued. Though apparently one or two far distant library staff printed off shares certificates for monetary gain before the plate was eventually scored…
As the weather was changeable I ventured into the garden first. It is one of two remaining Georgian townhouse gardens in the city and is available to library members, and the public on the Heritage open day.
It’s difficult to believe that it is in the middle of a busy, and so noisy city. It was restful and the transport routes that sandwich the house were just a vague hum.
Where there was once a sundial, now there is a Heliochronometer- fortunately there was an explanation sheet attached; “Nottingham is 1°9′ west of Greenwich, therefore when comparing noon at Greenwich with noon at Nottingham, Bromley House is 4 minutes 36 seconds in time after Greenwich.” The Heliochronometer “had the correction ‘built in’ during its original setting up.”
In the Thoroton Room, on one of the upper floors, they have the Library of the British Sundial Society; though it was a small number of books compared to some of the collections housed in the library.
There are three attic rooms and a studio at the top of the house. In 1841 the studio was the premises of a photographer, named Alfred Barber. Though he made alterations (he paid) adding a skylight, the structure was moved by a cog-wheel mechanism that was built in, so he never lost the benefit of the sun.
In another attic room you can still see the groove in the wood where the lower portion of a flag pole was fixed…
Eventually you reach the gallery (an addition in 1844) with the spiral staircase in one corner. You can see down into the Main Reading Room, though I kept looking straight-ahead so I didn’t freeze as I made my way across to the spiral staircase.
For the open day people were only allowed to go down, but at any time only one person can go up or down. This spiral staircase was added in 1857, and it is quite elegant in its own way, despite no central support column – hence the one person at a time rule.
(You can see it in one of the rolling images on the home page of the library’s website.)
Fortunately visitors were warned it can wobble, and it happened just as I started down the first turn, but it was only for a moment, and it was fine the rest of the way down. I suspect body weight creates the wobble, as the visitor who came down next was lighter and didn’t get the movement. Another person in the gallery chose to go back to the main stairs, and I must admit I did wonder why I hadn’t done that myself.
As I visited each room I noticed books on the shelves that had bands around them. These keep the book together while it awaits repair and checking.
The library has teams of volunteers who repair, clean and maintain the books, and this aspect was on display for visitors. If you pop over to Carol’s blog you can see the cleaning tools for cloth-bound books, and discover how they do it.
(You’ll also find a few other pictures from the day.)
Basically, anywhere there was room to put a bookcase or shelf, there was one – or more.
It’s an amazing place.
Bromley House Library information sheets, both outdoors and indoors.