If you stand down towards Mansion House and Bank Station and look east towards the impressive facade of The Royal Exchange, it seems as though a classical building has been photoshopped on to a modern office landscape. The skyline rises behind it with titans such as 122 Leadenhall Street (better known as The Cheese Grater), 22 Bishopsgate – a 278-metre tech-infused tower that will be second in height only to The Shard once completed – and the jagged-edged Scalpel building on Lime street.
The City will continue to change and grow, but undoubtedly The Royal Exchange will stand resolute, almost proudly, on the same site it has occupied since the mid 16th century; a nod back to a time when things were done a little differently. It makes me think of a beloved grandparent standing among a group of teenagers. Born of a different generation, maybe, but still with a twinkle in its eye, and able to command the awe and respect of the young upstarts that surround it.
It’s actually remarkable that The Royal Exchange is still here; it was burned down during the Great Fire of 1666 and rebuilt before being burned down again in 1838. Rebuilt again, it then quite remarkably survived The Second World War. High explosive bombs fell to either side, on both Cornhill and Threadneedle Street, and there’s a dramatic photograph, taken in 1941, that shows the front of the building. Most of the road outside has collapsed into a bomb crater and a banner hangs across the pillars that reads ‘DIG FOR VICTORY’. After the war, until being given Grade I-listed status, there were some who wanted to see the building demolished, as it was no longer being used for what it was built for, and therefore no longer useful as a building. Fortunately, it was deemed to be a “symbolic centre for commercial life in the City as much as for its architectural quality” and so was preserved for us future generations to continue to admire and enjoy.
At the nearby Guildhall Art Gallery, there’s a giant painting by William Logsdail called The Ninth of November 1888, which depicts the Lord Mayor’s parade of that year with The Royal Exchange building in the background. All of the people in it are so full of character, each seems to have their own story and you can spend ages just looking at them all and trying to imagine what life in the City of London was like back then.
As a landmark, I like to draw people’s attention to the massive gold grasshopper weather vane, which sits on the very top of the clock tower, above the eastern entrance. People are always surprised to see it. It’s the family crest of Thomas Gresham, the man who founded The Royal Exchange back in the mid-1500s, and, if you keep an eye out, you’ll spot a number of them in the area.
More often than not, when hosting a tour of the City, I typically approach The Royal Exchange from the street that runs across the back of the building, which doesn’t have such a grand entrance. As we enter, I’ll be chatting to the group about other things, so they are distracted, and I deliberately don’t prepare people for what the interior is like. When we walk in, their response is usually one of wide-eyed wonderment and awe.
Many people comment that it would never have occurred to them to actually go inside the building, and they are incredibly pleased that they did. Once I’ve explained a bit about the history of the building, you can see them begin to picture it as a trading floor. I also really like the fact that the original Exchange was a meeting place where you could get some top business tips, meet clients and get the gossip etc, and when you see people sitting at the cafe in the central courtyard, you realise the same thing still happens there today.
Here are some fun facts I like to share with the tour groups I take to see The Royal Exchange:
- The ‘Royal’ bit of the name was given to the building by Queen Elizabeth I, who officially opened it in 1571.
- Royal Proclamations are still announced from the front steps to this day.
- The eight pillars on the western portico were inspired by the Pantheon in Rome.
- The building is actually made largely from concrete – and not stone, as you might think. It was one of the first buildings in the UK to use concrete on a large scale.
- During the 1950s, the main courtyard area was used as a theatre.
- On the first floor, there are 24 19th-century murals, depicting scenes from London’s history.
- By adding shops to the trading floor, Sir Thomas Gresham created the UK’s first shopping mall.
Jonnie Fielding is the founder of London walking tours Bowl of Chalk. His guided tours have been featured in The Guardian, The Independent, Time Out London and on BBC Radio 4, and have earned him close to 900 five-star reviews and a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor; bowlofchalk.net