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At St Pancras Old Churchyard

June 10, 2018
by the gentle author

The Hardy Tree

As I arrived at Old St Pancras Churchyard, 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,” describing the quality of this mysterious enclave in the heart of London perfectly.

The Vestry

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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16 Responses leave one →
  1. June 10, 2018

    Yes, I agree with everything you say here. This is a wonderfully atmospheric site, althoughI found it slightly unnerving

  2. June 10, 2018

    Thomas Jones – Ostrich feather manufacturer and Eleanor Glibbery, my 3x great grandparents were married here on November 23rd, 1823.
    I’d never seen inside, though. Thank you, Gentle Author.

  3. June 10, 2018

    Great article, thanks.

  4. julia harrison permalink
    June 10, 2018

    I love the stories you tell, Gentle Author,
    through this beautiful set of photographs. I like the symbol of new life provided by the wedding party amongst the gravestones. It reminds me of a day spent last year at the Pere Lachaise cemetary in Paris.

  5. David Ransom permalink
    June 10, 2018

    Brilliant choice of poem at the end, love it!

  6. Malcolm permalink
    June 10, 2018

    One of my favourite places in London. I am often to be found wandering among the monuments and gravestones in quiet reverie, camera always ready to capture a fleeting moment when the light filters through the trees. The Church is often to be found empty of people, but not empty of metaphysical memory and atmosphere. A small space of peace to rest from the roaring cacophony of the City, the ancient walls provide a silent refuge where one may contemplate for a while as the sun above the altar smiles down on you. Mary Wollstonecraft’s monument attracts quiet offerings of nosegays, notes, poems, stones and various other ephemera, while the Hardy tree gradually subsumes those gravestones that the young Thomas helped to surround it with.
    If you are in London, take the time to seek out this small haven and you will be amply rewarded.

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    June 10, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, great piece about St. Pancras churchyard. I am interested in anything regarding Thomas Hardy, perhaps my favorite 19th century novelist. Hardy’s father was a stonemason and builder in Dorset, so Thomas followed that inclination by studying architecture in London. Yet he returned to West Country which provided a somber setting for his fiction and poetry.

    Great photos too – food for thought…

  8. pauline taylor permalink
    June 10, 2018

    A real treat for me on Sunday morning GA as the first two children of my 3xgreat grandparents Charles and Ann Greenwood were baptized in this church on 27 October 1807, the eldest was Mary Ann Seir Greenwood and the youngest Charles Seir Greenwood, sadly Charles died aged only 10 months and was buried at St Pancras on 17 Jul 1808.

    However Charles and Ann Greenwood did go on to have more children and were the grandparents of two famous journalists one of whom, Frederick Francis Greenwood was responsible for encouraging Disraeli to buy the shares in the Suez Canal which made Gt Britain a fortune..! So I was very pleased to see and read this piece about St Pancras as it is not only part of my family history but it is connected with an important event in the history of our country. .Thank you once again GA.

  9. Peter Jenkins permalink
    June 10, 2018

    Fascinating – I feel a trip to the church may well be coming on. Thank you for this

  10. Peter Holford permalink
    June 10, 2018

    You caught it on a lovely day. I visited this church a few years ago and had good luck with the weather too. I was en route and had just enough time getting from Euston to Waterloo and fitting in a visit to this church. My 3 x great grandparents married here in 1826. But after that most of their family occasions were in St Pancras new church which is quite an impressive edifice.

  11. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    June 10, 2018

    “I am here in a place beyond desire and fear.” I really like that sentiment. I hope to be there myself someday.

    I didn’t know that about Thomas Hardy. His poem “The Night of Trafalgar” always makes me weep. I’m not sure why.

    Thank you, as always, Gentle Author.

  12. stephanie permalink
    June 10, 2018

    Beautiful photos. Never been. Always rushed on by. Looks an oasis.
    What words from Hardy. An ageless dark humoured terror for the faint hearted; human jam, unforgettable.

    How about an Outside Spaces collection of your walks with resplendent photos, poems and voices from the dead?

  13. Geoff Stocker permalink
    June 10, 2018

    Thank you for reminding me of St.Pancras Churchyard my father use to drive down from Chalk Farm this was in the 1950’s and when we went past I would close my eyes because I found it frightening it’s time to return and lay those ghosts. Great article and wonderful photographs .

  14. Claire permalink
    June 11, 2018

    Absolutely fascinating, thank you.

  15. Laurent permalink
    June 11, 2018

    Thank you for this nice posting on the church and cemetery, I must go and visit.

  16. Charles permalink
    June 11, 2018

    Terrific photography as ever, echoed here:

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