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Hidden London: The Hardy Tree near St. Pancras Old Church

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

London is full of strange and unusual stories, none more so than The Hardy Tree which brings together one of London’s oldest churches, a famous novelist and the growth of the railway in the 19th century.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

St. Pancras Old Church is considered one of the oldest places of Christian worship in London dating back to at least the 7th century. It was in the 19th century when the Midland Railway line was being extended, part of this extension was over part of the original St. Pancras Churchyard. Mr Arthur Blomfield, an architect based in Covent Garden was commissioned by the Bishop of London to supervise the exhumation of human remains and dismantling of tombs.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Blomfield passed this task over to his assistant, Thomas Hardy who would later become famous as an novelist of books like Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure. In 1865, Hardy had the mundane task of moving bodies and tombstones, for some reason he began to place some of the tombstones against a large ash tree in the middle of the churchyard.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

A poem entitled The Levelled Churchyard by Hardy indicates that it was not a task he enjoyed.

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!’

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

As Hardy’s fame grew, so did the interest in the strange circle of tombstones around the tree. Over time the tree and tombstones seemed to have melded as one and is a strange mix of life and death.

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

The information on the plaque accompanying the tree explains that The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy 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 Railway line was being built over part of the original St. Pancras 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 protégé Thomas Hardy in. c.l865. 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 (Fraxinus excelsior) would have been placed here around this time. Note how the tree has since grown in amongst the stones.

A few years before Hardy’s involvement here, Charles Dickens makes reference to Old St. Pancras Churchyard in his Tale of Two Cities (1859), as the churchyard in which Roger Cly was buried and where Gerry Cruncher was known to “fish” (a 19th Century term for tomb robbery and body snatching).

© 2019 Visiting London Guide.com – Photograph by Alan Kean

Without doubt, The Hardy Tree is one of the more unusual London ‘memorials’ but the church is full of literary connections, the Dickens connection mentioned before and Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley planned their elopement here.

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