Flying kings and Rolling Stones: the eclectic story of John Wood the Elder and his Bristol Exchange


Image/map credits

Errata, clarifications and additions

If I got something wrong, you can make a pull request on github.

Please note the transcript should reflect what I say in the video, even if that turns out to be wrong. So if the transcript is not what I say, open a PR to fix it, but if my narration was wrong in the first place, open a PR to add an erratum in this section of the page instead.

Back to index


Regular viewers will know I am fond of fun facts that turn out to be fun non-facts, and this is another such story. Reading up on Corn Street, Bristol, I discovered that it hosts four bronze tables known as 'nails' which were used for conducting business transactions. They have raised edges to stop coins spilling off (or, in the 21st century, bits of kebab). And popular legend has it they are the origin of the phrase "cash on the nail" or "pay on the nail", meaning immediate and full payment is expected.

Popular legend is wrong. Probably.

14th century Anglo-Norman had a phrase "payer sur le ungle" with the same meaning, ungle deriving from the Latin ungula meaning claw, hoof or nail. The nail, it seems, refers to the human hand delivering the prompt cash payment, not any metal table located outside Bristol's Corn Exchange - nor Liverpool's stock exchange, nor Limerick's, for that matter, which also have nails and have the same legend told about them. It seems more likely, these tables were named after the phrase than the phrase was based on the tables.

Adding to this likelihood is the fact most of these nails were not built until decades or centuries after the first written appearance of the phrase, which was 1596. Bristol's are actually the awkward outlier here: two of them have been dated to 1625 and 1631, but the other two only more vaguely assessed as late 1500s, so they may actually be slightly earlier than the 1596 reference.

Still, the overall opinion seems to be that the phrase does not come from Bristol's nails. OK, Bristol council's website still makes the claim, as does this physical sign on the Exchange, but basically every other source seems to think that that's fakelore.

The other fun social-media-friendly nugget about this place is this clock, with its two minute hands. The two red hands tell Greenwich time, the black hand tells Bristol time, about ten minutes behind since the city is two and a bit degrees west of Greenwich. Prior to the railways Bristol would run on Bristol time and all other cities likewise, but it was impossible to run a railway network without a nationwide standard, so GMT was adopted as 'railway time' in 1847. Bristol officially adopted GMT for all purposes in 1852 according to one source. I'm not sure of the date of the additional minute hand on this clock but it presumably comes from that middle-of-the-century period when both were still in overlapping use.

The building it's attached to is one of Bristol's most architecturally and historically significant, accordingly Grade I listed.

This is the Exchange, a space for Bristol merchants to do their business, originally designed by John Wood the Elder and built between 1741 and 1743. Supposedly the only 18th century exchange in the country still surviving, after equivalents in London and Liverpool burnt down, it is "widely regarded as Wood's outstanding public building", and Wood is hailed as one of the outstanding architects of his era, making this a unanimously praised building amongst people who really know their architecture.

Of course, that doesn't include me, so I have to confess I don't personally like it very much. But we'll come to that shortly.

First a brief sweep through its history. It was built as a general Exchange - not to be confused with the Stock Exchange, which is here on St Nicholas St - then renamed in the 19th century as the Corn Exchange, before reverting to just Exchange. All manner of goods were traded here, and since this is Bristol, that included things due to be exchanged for slaves, things produced by slaves, and, indeed, you'd have to assume, slaves. Not here in person as far as I know, but slave-traders surely sought and repaid financial backing for their voyages here. To celebrate the global reach of the deals done here, the doorways were decorated with these representations of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Much modified over the years, it's currently hard to tell where Wood's Exchange ends and the St Nicholas Market begins. This is the south elevation of Wood's original building, but this roof was added by regular appear-er on this channel, Richard Shackleton Pope, in the 1850s - the other bits of stone supporting it seem to have been designed to match Wood's Exchange, but are not actually part of it.

Inside, likewise, is very different to how Wood left it. For starters, it wasn't even an inside, in his design - this was an open courtyard. The merchants got an architect called Edward Middleton Barry to add a glass roof in the 1870s, which was in turn replaced by the roof you see today in 1949, besides a long list of other alterations over the years.

Today, St Nick's markets have overflowed into the Exchange, restoring its historic purpose as somewhere to buy and sell. In the 20th century though it did go through a phase of various other uses, most notably serving as a venue for gigs in the 60s, hosting the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Cream.

Now that the interesting history stuff has been covered, and most viewers have given up already, I'll get onto the rambling stream of uneducated and barely coherent opinion, with regards to me not liking it very much.

The Historic England listing explains its merits in some detail, but alas I don't even know how to pronounce some of these words, never mind what they mean, so I am forced to resort to general adjectives, but basically I find it a bit... fussy. Heavy handed. Pompous.

I think a big part of my beef is with the rusticated stonework on the lower level. Rustication is the art of making masonry look more rustic. It is a principle going way back to classical architecture that lower levels should have a coarser, more rugged and rustic appearance to give visual weight to the building, growing more refined and delicate as it climbs.

So at the lowest level of our ruggedness scale we have rubble, and at the finest level we have ashlar, where blocks are finely cut, faces smoothed and set perfectly flush with each other. In between we have a variety of masonry techniques to create a spectrum. Sometimes the outward face is left with a sort of 3D rubble nature, but this is still distinct from actual rubble in that each block is still squared off rectangular in the other dimensions. Then you get examples like the Exchange, where the faces are smooth like ashlar, but you have these exaggerated, chiselled-out joints. Sometimes you get the faces carved into patterns, known as reticulated or vermiculated, as seen in these examples.

Now I'm no stonemason, but it seems to me like all of these techniques might actually take more time than fine, flush ashlar - you are essentially putting in a lot of fine-detailed work to make it look like you've put in less fine-detailed work. Which is fake; architecturally dishonest in much the same way as wooden beams with no load-bearing function glued onto the outside of mock-tudor houses are dishonest.

I'm not too much of a dogmatic purist about architectural honesty. Rustication is everywhere, once you notice it, even on buildings that aren't remotely classical architecture otherwise - but you generally don't notice it because it does its visually-anchoring job subtly, so that your eye just swallows the lie. But sometimes with buildings like the Exchange, the combination of that inherent fakeness with its shamelessly self-aggrandizing, self-important vibe - it's an architectural version of Hyacinth Bouquet.

I also feel like the general proportions of it just don't quite work. It seems really bottom-heavy to me. If rustication is meant to turn the ground floor into a solid base for the more optimally balanced 'main event' above, then this is kind of all base and not much main event. Even giving it the artificial advantage of a 10 millimetre lens, the nice bit seems rather overwhelmed by the chunky bit, to me. Given the narrow-ness of Corn Street, I think it's actually even worse in person. It's impossible to step back far enough such that your eye settles on the supposedly nice bit. You're left with the exaggerated rustication and the iron fencing creating a somewhat fortress-y vibe that tips the balance from grand and imposing into oppressive, almost hostile.

Personally I much prefer John Wood the Elder's domestic work, his houses over his civic buildings, which try a bit less hard to be grand and self-important. Although that sentence might be rather misleading, given that the 'domestic' work in question was... pretty much single-handedly inventing Georgian Bath as we know it, which is famously rather grand indeed.

But still, perhaps you can see what I mean. The Circus is imposing and impressive, still, and for those who care about the precepts of classical architecture, you have your Ionic and Corinthian or whatever, all in the appropriate order as the storeys ascend.

For those who don't know or care about that stuff, though, such details fade gracefully into a clean consistent repetition that satisfies a more minimalist or modernist eye.

The other thing in their favour is that you have plenty of space to admire their proportions from a suitable distance, and this is no coincidence.

John Wood the Elder was not merely the architect of the buildings on many of Bath's most notable streets, squares and circuses, but the masterplanner and visionary of those streets and squares in their collective entirety, and the entrepreneurial property developer responsible for bringing them to reality.

Having worked on the speculative property development of the Cavendish estate in London, he brought those market mechanisms back to his home city, but his large-scale success with that is rather remarkable considering that, unlike the Cavendish family, he had no huge aristocratic fortune or influence: he was the son of a local builder.

Of course, when I said 'single-handedly' built Bath, that was tongue-in-cheek hyperbole; there are many significant chunks of Georgian Bath that he did not design or build. But while much urban development occurred after his death, it was undoubtedly following the template he had set for the city; indeed, with the likes of the Royal Crescent being designed and built by his son, John Wood the Younger, you could say his architectural DNA persisted rather literally as well as metaphorically. And it's the width and spaciousness of his streets and squares, for me, which enable the architectural vision of his actual buildings to shine. Whereas with the Exchange, I find his style severely cramped by the narrow Saxon alleyway that is Corn Street.

A few items from my clickbait title remain to be ticked off. Stonehenge is linked to all this in as much as John Wood the Elder gave us one of the most detailed surveys of it in 1740, measuring the size and location of stones to within fractions of an inch. He also surveyed Stanton Drew stone circle, just a few miles outside Bristol.

He was not simply engaged in recording the physical reality of the stone circles as they lay at that time, however. He was highly opinionated about their Druidic origins, sacred geometry and so on. Similarly, he was a big believer in Bladud, the legendary King of the Britons who supposedly founded the city of Bath by creating its hot springs by magic to cure his leprosy before using necromancy to build himself wings and fly off to the Temple of Apollo.

Needless to say, contemporary historians are a teeny bit sceptical that Bladud existed, but Wood was apparently a staunch believer and his whole vision for the grand new Bath was based on restoring it to its supposed ancient glory in Bladud’s time. I read one source which said he built the Circus to almost exactly the same diameter as Stonehenge, which I instinctively filed right alongside the source which said the Circus and Royal Crescent are connected by ley lines, but then I reconsidered... it's not a very outlandish theory considering he literally wrote umpteen pages about how the perfection of Druidic geometry inspired his architectural ideals. And if you overlay them up on a map, they do actually seem to line up quite closely.

He also incorporated lots of supposedly mystical references and symbolism into his buildings, like these acorns, which allegedly relate to Bladud and/or druids and/or Stonehenge in some way (I read quite a few different theories and to be honest I can’t be bothered to recount them all). There are also some symbols which seem to relate to Freemasonry although apparently it’s still argued-over as to whether he actually was a Freemason.

Anyway, it's time for me to don my necromantic wings and fly away because that's all for this video. Hope you enjoyed it, thanks for watching, please like and subscribe, etc etc. Cheers.