Wednesday, 1 June 2011

John Wood

Way back in the 1970s, when the Bath library was situated where the municipal Art Gallery is now (over the road from where I now live in our compact but adorable city apartment), I was in there one day scanning the shelves when my eyes fell on a large, old, leather-bound book.

When I pulled it off the shelf, I was astounded to see that it was a first edition of John Wood's 'Description of Bath', printed in 1742, with pull-out and unfolding engravings of various maps, buildings and planetary diagrams. I was even more astounded to see that it was in the lending library, and not the reference library under lock and key. I withdrew it and took it home.

John Wood was Georgian Bath's principal architect, responsible for many of the world-famous buildings that tourists flock to see every year as they have done for hundreds. He was also something of an Antiquary - the first amateur scientists to take a close look at Britain's prehistoric remains, and he incorporated some of their assumed attributes into buildings like 'The Circus'.

He was also a Freemason, in the days when freemasonry was more than just a friendly society and closer to a secret society with all it's ritual and pagan trappings. The book also served as an advert for his home city, and - in publishing it - he became one of the first of the many tourism promoters that Bath have produced over the last 250 years.

Bath is called a 'city', simply because it has an ancient abbey at it's centre, and this is all that remains of a vast monastery which stretched all the way to Wells and Glastonbury. The first king of all England was crowned here in the 900s, which also helps with Bath's status as a metropolis, but - in reality - Bath is a small town or a large village, depending on your viewpoint.

It was even smaller in John Wood's day, after he had knocked down almost all of the medieval buildings within the city walls to make way for his neo-classical ones, and he would have been a familiar sight walking around the few square hundred yards that encircle the Guildhall, on the streets that follow the old medieval pattern, but had been re-named by him and his cronies.

The are three adjoining streets near here called 'Quiet Street', 'John Street' and Wood Street'. One night in the Guildhall, the City Fathers were discussing various business (as they still do there today - worse luck), when John Wood interrupted the proceedings by asking loudly, "What are we going to call my three new streets?"

The chairman put him down by shouting back, "Quiet, John Wood!" and that is how they were named.

Anyway, back to the book. I took it home and, for the next few weeks, read it every night, poring over the huge illustrations. Then I put it on the shelf - and forgot about it for around a year...

When I finally remembered it, I took it back to the library with some trepidation, expecting a huge fine, but the librarian's eyes lit up when she saw what I was carrying, and she called her colleagues over to see what I had returned. They were so delighted to get it back that they waived all fines and almost treated me as a hero, vowing to never let it out of the building ever again. I was the last person to extract that rare volume, and it's a good job it was me, otherwise it could have been torn up and framed in pieces, like so many other 17th and 18th century books were over the last hundred years. It now resides - under lock and key - in the city's archives, and they look over your shoulder when you read it, wearing white cotton gloves.

I saw a facsimile copy of it in a charity shop a few weeks ago, and when I went in to buy it, I saw the price tag of £50, so changed my mind. I went home and looked it up on the net, finding a 'print on demand' version for about £12, so I ordered it and it arrived yesterday.

Of course, it's nothing like the original, but it still has all the words about this town in facsimile, (badly copied from micro-film) written by the old necromancer himself, a matter of a few hundred yards away from where I write this.

Let me know if you want to see some scanned pages with local interest, and I'll post them up. They make fascinating reading - for me, at any rate.


  1. Hello Tom:
    What a delightful tale and how splendid that you now have a facsimile.

    Years ago, when we were in Marlborough, we would make forays to Bath, our nearest city [Swindon not counting], often to be in Harris of Green Street who, at the time, were the only makers of circular picture frames, at least that we knew of. After that it was tea in The Red House which, with its plain wooden floor and high backed Mackintosh style chairs, was always an experience and redolent of the 1930s. And then, of course, there was Jolly's!

    Doubtless all of this has long gone and we hear that the Roman Baths [another erstwhile tea place] have been completely revamped and are now very interactive and user friendly.

    This post recalls happy memories of a lovely city.

  2. No doubt when you took it back, the illustrations had all been replaced by lazer copies. And the walls of the CBACA now sport the originals. What; you didn't?

  3. Harris have just celebrated their 150th (or 180th) birthday, Hs, and are still going very strong indeed. I used to breakfast every morning in the Old Red House, but - sadly - I was the one to demolish the old kitchen to make way for the Brillig Art Gallery, which I also built, back in the late 70s. Brillig was then demolished to make way for Laura Ashley.

    Jolly's is still going, but under threat from the new Debenhams store which opened up in Southgate last year. I hope they survive. I used to also take tea with the last remaining family member - know, funnily enough - as Mrs Jolly, in what used to be Parsen Salley, next door. She was a real old eccentric, and was in there every day. She had her own table reserved for her and was greatly revered.

  4. I'm not that naughty, Cro. (and they didn't have laser-copiers in those days...)

  5. Oh and by the way, I have recently learned (from a librarian friend of mine) that Bath library has an antiquarian copy of Machiavelli's 'The Prince' in it's collection - bound in human skin.

  6. You were so lucky to get that book out and they were so lucky to have it at someone who treasured it so Tom. Of course we would like to see one or two pages.

  7. Interesting! I am so glad you returned the precious book, Thomas.

  8. Yes please. I enjoyed reading that!

  9. I love old books and old documents of all sorts..
    One kind soul gave me copies of the 1861 census from the village...amazing!!!

  10. A few pages now up on the next post...

  11. £50 for the Kingsmead facsimile copy was not a bad price if the book was in good condition. What's important about it is that Kingsmead Press went to the trouble of providing an index - something the original and presumably the digital copy lacks. So I fear you missed a trick there. Maybe that was fair "punishment" for having deprived others of the use of the original for so long. But good for you for returning it. Although having said that, when you consider what is happening to Bath Library and its collections, and the way in which the council is treating the librarians, it might have been better off with you. I am very concerned about the future of this collection.