After five years of work, one of London’s best-preserved 18th-century interiors is reopening to the public.
This is the library high up on the Triforium level inside St Paul’s Cathedral, and while it’s reopening as a reference library for researchers, it will also be included in public tours offered by the Cathedral so everyone can see it.
The Cathedral nearly didn’t have a library at all because the Great Fire of London did such a good job of destroying the medieval library and its contents, leaving the Cathedral with barely enough books to fill a single shelf. They knew they’d get more books though, so high up in the gods of the Cathedral building, a large room was set aside and given a decorative treatment that seems almost excessive for a room that wasn’t intended to be seen by the public.
Exceptionally deeply carved Portland stone panels sit around an upper gallery with equally richly decorated brackets underneath. Recent research has discovered that the large brackets supporting the walkway are purely decorative, and the walkway is cantilevered off the wall instead. Or at least it was supposed to, but the corners had come away from the wall and had started to sag.
The recent conservation work has finally fixed the sagging walkway.
The conservation was in part triggered by the 300th-anniversary project that saw the Cathedral given a deep clean at the turn of the millennium, but the library was deferred due to the expected complexity of the conservation work that was needed.
Five years ago, the library was closed to the researchers as some 13,000 books and manuscripts were carefully packed into 900 boxes that had to be lowered to the ground on ropes and then taken to the former RAF Upper Heyford and stored in the very same hardened aircraft shelters that had once protected USAF bombers during the Cold War.
Back at the Cathedral, layers of paint were being tested to uncover Sir Christopher Wren’s original colours for the library ceiling so it could be repainted, while the bookshelves were repaired and cleaned.
The library used to be heated by a large hot water pipe that ran around the room – but it had been placed above the books, posing a risk if a leak had ever occurred. It was also linked to the Cathedral’s main heating network, which meant it could be either on or off, and that’s all. A new humidistat heating system has replaced the old pipe and now keeps the room at a suitable temperature and humidity for preserving old books.
One thing they’ve been very pleased about is that the smell is back. Technically, the smell is bad as it’s from books decaying, but it’s an essential element of an old library and the smell in the room feels more like an old friend has returned home again.
The conservation work cost around £800,000, funded mainly by donations, and while the conservation is now completed, another aim of the project is just starting: to open the library up to more people.
From an academic perspective, it’s a fully itemised reference library and anyone with a reason to can request a visit. A related project that’ll likely take a couple of years to complete is to put the library archive online so people can see what’s available to read.
However, the library will also be opened to the general public for a look around.
The library is high up in the Cathedral in an ample but largely hidden space known as the Triforium, and about a decade ago they started occasional tours of the Triforium. These tours now take place most days, and as the restoration has been completed, they’ve added the library back into the tours.
The tours will once again allow visitors to walk through the heavy wooden doors and step inside to breathe deeply the bookish smell within.