Friday, 30 November 2012

Hidden Treasures

I love finding hidden gems on my own doorstep and experiencing that 'wow why didn't I find this before' feeling.

This week I took a trip to Newcastle's Lit and Phil. It's a fantastically located building near the Central Station and en route to the quayside, making it a place I have passed more times over many years than I could ever remember.

Like many of this city's understated glorious buildings, there is nothing yelling at you to come in. There is a small easy to ignore A board outside when it is open and if you do take the time to peer closer there is a plaque. Neither prepares you for what's inside.

Walk through the entrance of this 200 year old building and you're at the foot of the type of staircase built for ladies in crinolines to glide down and be greeted by men in top hats with large mutton chop whiskers. At the top of this elegant staircase is a list of some past members of the Lit and Phil that reads like a roll call of the North East's great and good - Bewick, Swan, Dobson, Grainger, Armstrong, Parsons, Grey, Stephenson. It harks back to an era of engineering excellence and reflects the region's strengths in ideas, ingenuity and creativity. The list takes us right up to recent times - the first lady president (hurrah!) and today's incumbent Alexander Armstrong.

If you then throw open the doors (with a bit of effort, they built them sturdy in those days), ignore the definitely modern day security system, you step back to a time when printing was the latest technology and books prized possessions. It smells like a library and looks like a library - no glass and steel or rows of computers here. It is all about the books.  Rows and rows of them, floor to ceiling, covering every inch of wall space. One hundred and fifty thousand of them.  As someone who once dreamt of working in a proper library where you got to say shhhh, use a stamper and shin up ladders to impossibly high shelves, it's heaven on earth.

The oldest book here is from 1560, the newest from the latest best sellers list. And everything in between. The two cavernous rooms each have an upper level balcony that you can walk around. The balconies and stairs are built for practicality rather than health and safety and you are trusted, as you were in the good old days, to take enough care not to throw yourself over the ornate railing.

There is no shushing here - originally founded as a 'conversation club', it is a sociable place where discussions and debates are actively encouraged (and as likely to feature football as much as the latest political or scientific issues). Inclusive and forward thinking, women were admitted as members by 1804 and there is currently a 'ladies room' if you want to escape from all that football talk.  Downstairs there is a quiet room though for anyone who wants or needs to sit in silence.

As if you need any more encouragement to linger for more than a while, there is a supply of tea, coffee and cakes and you can take your pick of seats from those at the huge wooden tables, to leather arm chairs to the comfy sofa in the Ladies Room.

As well as the surprising, splendid building and contents, the ambience and environment of the Lit and Phil is so far removed from the bustling, busy modern streets outside that it is a very special sanctuary indeed. And one I'll be escaping to whenever I can.

If you want to find out more go to Newcastle Lit and Phil's website here

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