The Hardy Tree

It was a cold, foggy London morning on the journey into work.  Perfect for atmospheric shots at this week's destination.  Except, it brightened up into a gloriously sunny day by lunchtime.  No matter. 

Intrepid lunchtime explorers that we are, we were venturing further afield today, so decided to treat ourselves to a black cab.  We instructed our driver to take us to St Pancras Old Church.  "Is that where the morgue is?" he double-checked.  Morgue?!  "Yes, that's the one!" we told him chirpily and hopped in the back questioning where we may end up but thrilled to be on another lunchtime adventure.  We were pleased to see our trusty driver following our A to B Google map to the letter.  No round the houses-get a couple of extra quid out of of 'em-scenic route messing about.

So we arrived at the church, climbed the steps, admired the big iron gates, with their scrolls and gilt highlights for a moment, and the shadows they cast upon the path.

Then we went to have a look at the church, one of the oldest in England, possibly dating back to the early 4th century.  Remnants of medieval features and references in the Domesday Book suggest it pre-dates the Norman Conquest.  The present building has been here since the 11th or 12th century.  It was ruinous in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 14th century, half abandoned in the 16th century, restored in the 17th century and again substantially rebuilt in the mid 19th century, when the 13th century west tower was dismantled and the new bell tower added. 

During the Civil War, the church was used as a barracks and stable for Cromwell's troops.  Before the troops arrived, the church's treasures were buried for their protection and then lost, only to be rediscovered during restoration work in the early 19th century.

Not to be confused with St Pancras New Church, which we shall be investigating on another occasion, the church is dedicated to the Roman martyr, Saint Pancras. 

Poor Pancras was the orphaned Christian son of a nobleman.  He was brought up at the Court of the Emperor in Rome.  At the age of 14, refusing to betray his Christian faith, he was executed by decapitation on 12th May, 304 AD.

We were struck by the simplicity inside the church,  It was not as ornate or elaborate as a lot of old churches but there were many interesting features.  Apparently the altar stone dates back to the 6th century and is reputed to have belonged to St Augustine of Canterbury, a Benedictine monk who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 597, and a founder of the English Church.

Little remains of the original medieval church but in the north wall of the nave, there is an exposed section of Norman masonry (just creeping into the right-hand side of the second photo, below).

The 19th century restoration was undertaken by Victorian architects, Alexander Dick Gough and Robert Lewis Romieu, famous for the wonderful double-gabled, gothic masterpiece at 33-35 Eastcheap that we stumbled across on our visit to see those little plaster mice.  We considered for a moment how, once you start to delve, there is a lot of interconnection to be found in historical London.

33-35 Eastcheap

The River Fleet, which is now underground, runs through the plain around the church, which we we were delighted to discover, as the Fleet is also on our hitlist.  More connections!

The churchyard is the largest green space in the locality and people seemed to be making good use of it, kipping on its benches and exercising their pooches on this fine Spring day.  

We scanned the graveyard for the main attraction:  The Hardy Tree.  The plaque accompanying the tree explains that "before turning to writing full time," Thomas Hardy "studied architecture in London from 1862-67 under Mr Arthur Blomfield, an architect based in Covent Garden.  During the 1860s the Midland Railwayline was being built over part of the original churchyard.  Blomfield was commissioned by the Bishop of London to supervise the proper exhumation of human remains and dismantling of tombs.  He passed this unenviable task to his protege, Thomas Hardy in 1865.  Hardy would have spent many hours in St Pancras Churchyard, overseeing the careful removal of bodies and tombs from the land on which the railway was being built.  The headstones around this Ash tree would have been placed here about this time."  Here they stayed and the tree has since grown up between the stones, extending it's roots among them.


The churchyard also features a mausoleum designed by Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect of the Bank of England (1788-1830), the Dulwich Picture Gallery (1811-14) and Holy Trinity Church on Marylebone Road (1824-8).  The mausoleum was erected in 1816 following his wife's death in 1815 and entombs his wife and son, as well as himself.

The central dome structure inspired the design of London's iconic red telephone boxes by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.  Atop with pineapple!  (The English, who, back in the day, were overwhelmed with the lovely pineapple fruit, drew inspiration from its looks and unique shape and it became a popular symbol of wealth and generous hospitality.)

Sir John Soane's Mausoleum
One of only two Grade I listed monuments in London (the other being Karl Marx's tomb in Highgate)

The plaque reads:
are deposited the Remains of
Sir John Soane R.A. F.R.S.
Architect to the Bank of England
&c. &c. &c.
who departed this life
on the 20th January 1837
aged 84

Vampire writer and physician John Polidori, the composer Johann Christian Bach (brother of Johann Sebastian Bach), William Franklin (the last colonial Governor of New Jersey and illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin) and philosophers and writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were all buried here.

Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the future Mary Shelley (author of "Frankenstein") planned their elopement over meetings at the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Wollstonecraft's grave
Stone reads:
Author of
A Vindication
of the Rights of Woman
Born 27th April 1759
Died 10th September 1797

Charles Dickens mentions the churchyard by name in "A Tale of Two Cities", making it the location of bodysnatching to provide corpses for dissection at medical schools, a common practice at the time.

And The Beatles were photographed here in 1968 to promote the single "Hey Jude" and the album "The Beatles", better known as "The White Album".

On a final dash around the graveyard looking for Bach (not the one we were expecting, it later transpired - see above), we came across The Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial.  This elaborate sundial was designed by George Highton of Brixton in the decorative gothic style and is Grade II listed.  It was unveiled in 1879 by Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906), one of the great Victorian philanthropists who sought to rid London of its slums.

One of the richest women in Britain in the mid 19th century and widely respected for her undying generosity and piety, she was known as the "Queen of the Poor" and "Nursing-Mother of the Church of England".  She was the first woman to be given a peerage in 1871 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in honour of her charitable services.

The memorial is constructed of Portland stone (given the distance we'd travelled, we didn't have time to check for fossils today!), marble, granite and red Mansfield stone, with extensive mosaic enrichment depicting flowers and the seasons.  The spire includes a sundial, relief carvings of St Pancras and St Giles and a list of eminent persons buried in the churchyard.  The whole structure is enclosed by cast iron railings with stone statues on pedestals at each corner, one of which is thought to have been modelled on Baroness Burdett-Couts' own collie dog.

Detail of the spire, showing the sun dial with the latin inscription:
(Time, the devourer of all things)

On our way out, we spotted a nifty, little drinking fountain that required closer inspection.  From the Victorian era, it is painted cast iron and also Grade II listed.  Just enough time for a few quick snaps!  Actually, we were multi-tasking at this point, as the clock was against us...snapping whilst hailing a cab from the road, sensibly ensuring we were only 10 minutes late back to work.  Oh dear.  We resolved to have a pre-meeting before our next long haul excursion to facilitate better preparation and maximise our precious hour.  But, all in all, another successful trip!

Sign reads:
- by -
- of -
St. Pancras
22nd August 1877

Detail from the top, showing a prancing cherub with urn and a series of faces

     Map of the churchyard


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