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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
60 - St Pancras delights: Shelley's love, Hardy's tree and Soane's Mausoleum
From here, my route (attempting to get round the building works and back close to the 300 easting) takes me into St Pancras Gardens, the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church. It's tempting to describe this is as a green oasis in the otherwise urbanised King's Cross, but it doesn't feel like a peaceful place. The triangle of park is hemmed in by railway lines, Pancras Road, and the oppressive buildings of St Pancras Hospital (dating from 1880s, but replacements for what had been the St Pancras Workhouse). A long time ago, though, it would have been a very pleasant site, overlooking the River Fleet.
The plot is steeped in history. At the entrance to the church, a notice informs me this has been a site of prayer and meditation since 315 AD. It is also thought to be one of the oldest Christian sites in England: not only was a Saxon cross, dating from 600 AD, found here, but the first missionary, St Augustine, who arrived in 597, was known to have been very keen on St Pancras. (While still a teenager, Pancras, the orphaned son of a Phrygian nobleman, refused to betray his Christian faith by offering incense in worship to Dioclesian. He was executed by decapitation in 304 AD on the Aurelian Way, where a Basilica was later raised in his honour.) Like Somers Town in general, the church on this spot lost status during the late 18th century. Consequently, by 1822 a new St Pancras Church had been built on the right (not wrong) side of Euston Road. This old place of worship, though, retained some status as a chapel of ease for the new main church, and was rebuilt in the 1840s, with a tower and Norman-style windows. Today the church is hemmed in by railings (just like the park is by infrastructure) although a small carefully-tended flower bed nestles against its walls. A poster says: 'Our diversity is God's diversity. All members of our community are welcome.'
The churchyard - which, in the past, served St Pancras and St Giles - is full of delights, both tangible and intangible. The latter come from knowing that, in 1801 the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi was buried here, and that a decade later, in 1814, the poet Percy Shelley declared his love for Mary Wollstonecraft over the grave of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who had died in childbirth. The mother wrote Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, and her daughter wrote 'Frankenstein'. Percy and Mary lived for a while in a road called Church Row, which was demolished to make way for the Midland Railway Station. It's also worth noting that Charles Dickens makes reference to Old St Pancras Churchyard in 'Tale of Two Cities': a character called Jerry Cruncher was known to fish - i.e. rob tombs and snatch bodies here.
More tangibly, there is an ash tree with its roots growing up through a close-knit ring of gravestones, laid face to face, around its trunk. A notice tells me all about the so-called 'Hardy Tree': 'Before turning to writing full time [Thomas Hardy] studied architecture (1862 -1867) under Mr Arthur Blomfield, an architect based in Covent Garden. During the 1860s, the Midland Railway Line was being built near part of the St Pancras Churchyard. Blomfield was commissioned by the Bishop of London to supervise the proper exhumation of human remains and the dismantling of tombs. He passed this unenviable task on to his protege Thomas Hardy, around 1865. Hardy would have spent many hours in Old St Pancras Churchyard during the construction of the railway 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 there around this time.'
A large plain tree, with an impressive girth, stands in the centre of
the gardens, protected by a metal bench encircling it. A few yards north
is the Soane Mausoleum. Another helpful notice says: 'This Grade I listed
mausoleum was designed by Sir John Soane, the celebrated architect of the
Bank of England, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Holy Trinity Church
on Marylebone Road. The mausoleum was erected in 1816 following his wife's
death in 1815 and entombs his wife and son as well as himself. The understated
classicism of the design is widely seen as one of Soane's most inventive
creations. Its central dome structure is known to have influenced Sir Giles
Scott's famous design of the K2 telephone kiosk. The mausoleum is one of
only two Grade I listed monuments in London, the other being Karl Marx's
tomb in Highgate.' Over the years, the memorial has been subject to vandalism.
In the 19th century, Cruncher types nearly led to its removal to Lincoln
Inn's Field (other remains did get moved, like those of Mary Wollstonecraft
Godwin which went to Bournemouth in the 1850s). The effects of more recent
vandals were wiped out during a restoration of the mausoleum and of the
gardens in 2000-01. Today, Soane's monument to his wife has a skirt of grass
and a circular railing to protect it.
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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