At St Pancras Old Churchyard
The Hardy Tree
As I arrived at Old St Pancras Churchyard yesterday, the Verger was sweeping leaves from the steps and she informed me there was a wedding taking place inside the church. Yet I was more than happy to explore this most ancient of central London churchyards for an hour while the nuptials were in progress.
The churchyard itself is upon a raised mound that is the result of all the hundreds of thousands of burials upon this ground which is claimed to be one of the earliest sites of Christian worship in London, recorded by the Maximilian Mission as already established by the year 324. Such is the proximity of St Pancras Station, you can hear the announcements from the platforms even as you wander among the tombs, yet an age-old atmosphere of tranquillity prevails here that cannot be dispelled by the chaos and cacophony of contemporary King’s Cross and St Pancras.
However, the railway has encroached upon the churchyard increasingly over the years and, in the eighteen-sixties, architect Arthur Blomfield, employed Thomas Hardy as his deputy, responsible for exhumations of the dead. Tombstones were arranged around an ash tree which has absorbed some of them into its trunk over time and acquired the name ‘The Hardy Tree,’ commemorating this unlikely employment for the young novelist whose subsequent literary works express such an inescapable morbidity.
Once the bride and groom emerged from the church door, the Verger ushered me in through the back and I was delighted by the intimate quality of the church interior, studded with some impressive old monuments. The Verger relished telling the tale of St Pancras, beheaded by the Emperor Diocletian in Rome in 304 at the age of fourteen for refusing to renounce his faith.
When the cloth had been removed from the altar after the ceremony, I was able to view the small sixth century altar stone, marked with five crosses of curious design, of which the only other examples are upon the tomb of Eithne, mother of St Columba, on the Hebridean island of Luing, dated to 567. A modest piece of Kentish rag stone, there is a legend this once served as an altar for St Augustine.
“We try to fall down every two hundred years,” explained the Verger breezily, drawing my attention to the alarming cracks in the wall and outlining the elaborate history of collapse and rebuilding that has produced the appealing architectural palimpsest you discover today.
Outside in the June sunshine, the newly-married couple were getting their wedding photographs taken, while rough sleepers slumbered among the graves just as the long-gone rested beneath the grass. A text carved nearby the entrance of the church reads “And I am here in a place beyond desire and fear,” expressing the quality of this mysterious enclave in the heart of London perfectly.
St Pancras Coroners
Sir John Soane’s tomb of 1837 inspired Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the telephone box
Baroness Burdett Coutts was responsible for the vast gothic memorial sundial
Mary Wollstonecraft, born in Spitalfields and buried in Bournemouth, but commemorated here with her husband William Godwin
The grave of Charles Dickens’ school teacher, William Jones, believed to be the inspiration for the ferocious Mr Creakle in David Copperfield. “By far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know … one of the worst tempered men perhaps that ever lived.”
Norman stonework uncovered in the renovation of 1848
The seventh century altar stone is incised with crosses of Celtic design
“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!”
“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’”
Thomas Hardy, The Levelled Churchyard (1882)
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