Travel Report: Wren Library, Cambridge.
Wren Library, Cambridge.
Cover photo courtesy of Andrew Dunn.
May 2019. Cambridge is a city bursting at the seams with history. People flock here from across the globe to see the likes of King’s College and Great St Mary’s Church. However, there’s an equally fascinating sight at Trinity College that seems to have slipped a little under the radar.
Dating back to 1695, Wren Library has been serving Trinity College students for over 320 years. Moreover, it stands as a magnificent display room for some of Britain’s most historical books and manuscripts.
If you wanna check out Wren Library you’ll need to get organised. Firstly, my buddy Mike and I made our way to Trinity College’s Neville’s Court. Find your way onto Garrett Hostel Lane and head towards the large, black wooden gate. The blue GHL Punts board in front of the gate is a good marker.
From the gate it’s a two minute walk to the handsome Neville’s Court. The archway you need for Wren Library is hidden right behind this weeping willow tree. On the day of our visit there was no sign indicating where Wren Library is.
Wren Library, Cambridge.
Unless you’re studying here, it isn’t possible to go wandering around Neville’s Court. Hence I had to make do with a peek through the bars of the arched windows. The court is home to a college hall and student accommodation.
Wren Library runs across the entire length of its western side. Legend has it that it was here on the court’s north cloister that Sir Isaac Newton stamped his foot and timed the resulting echoes. His experiment set in motion what would become his revolutionary discoveries on the speed of sound.
You can’t just rock up at Wren Library any old time. Students, librarians and archivists are still doing their thing here. Plus, there are priceless works of art and literature on display. As a result, they’ve set aside specific time slots for public access. On busy days they may even restrict the number of people entering to fifteen at a time.
Mike and I arrived on a weekday at about a quarter to twelve, ensuring we were the first in line. A gruff northern Irishman by the name of Billy met us downstairs at the bottom of the staircase. Welcoming us to Wren Library, he introduced himself as a head librarian before leading us upstairs.
Along the way, he explained that photography inside is absolutely forbidden. I’m usually adept at obtaining sneaky shots, regardless of any no photo policy. But there was something about Billy’s demeanour that suggested he is not a man to be messed with. Thus my camera stayed in my pocket.
An underrated Cambridge Gem.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Dunn.
I cannot overstate how gorgeous the interior is. The acclaimed architect Sir Christopher Wren designed it in 1676, with construction completed twenty years later. Wren’s primary goal was to create a space where natural light poured in through the rows of soaring windows on each side.
Below those windows sit the library’s amazing bookcases, also designed by Wren. Carver extraordinaire Grinling Gibbons added the bookcase carvings, while the marble busts depicting renowned Trinity College fellows came from the hand of the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac.
The most notable of Wren Library’s stained glass windows shows an imaginary scene of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon being received by King George III.
It’s supposed to embody the wisdom and learning of the college. Both Newton and Bacon were high profile Trinity College alumni, while King George was the patron saint of science and learning.
Wren Library, Cambridge.
There are around fifty five thousand books at Wren Library. For the most part you can’t read from them, save for seven designated exhibition cases. Happily, these displays contain the most incredible historical treasures! Simply pull back the case cover (which protects the artefacts from damaging sunlight) and you’ll find all sorts of delights.
I saw an 8th century copy of The New Testament, the original print of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crueso and a collection of autographed poems by John Milton. Mike and I also discovered the above notebook belonging to Isaac Newton. He used it between 1659-1661 to jot down study notes, details of personal expenses and some philosophical scribblings.
My own personal Wren Library highlight was coming face to face with A.A. Milne’s original manuscript of The House at Pooh Corner. Both Milne and his son Christopher Robin studied Mathematics at Trinity College.
As if everything I’ve mentioned so far wasn’t brilliant enough, there was another special reason for coming to see Wren Library. In 2017 my old friend Mike finally published the debut novel he’d been toiling away on for so many years. The Judas Deception is a story set in Cambridge and features a key scene from… yes… Wren Library!
“A Cambridge don is dead, his student stands accused of the murder. The boy’s father turns to his old friend Professor Daniel Huxley for help.
The only clue is an obscure fragment of parchment belonging to the Gospel of Judas Iscariot”.
For more information on Wren Library, check out the official website.
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Too bad you were so limited. It appears to be as much a museum as a library.
Libraries are seriously underrated spots that not many people visit on their travels. Besides some having spectacular interiors, they’re rich in old manuscripts (including the originals). Really cool that there’s one of Isaac Newton’s at the Wren Library! Hope to go there if I ever go to Cambridge. 🙂
Couldn’t agree more. I would definitely like to see a few more of these kinds of libraries around the world. Thanks for your continued support of the site!
Of course! Always happy to return the favor to a loyal followers, too!