The Hardy Tree, St Pancras Old Church, London.

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“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[1]

Known best for his works of literature, author Thomas Hardy played a little known but important role in the redevelopment of the Kings Cross area in the years 1862-67, in which he both studied under and worked alongside the Covent Garden based architect Arthur Blomfield. When the new Midland Railway Company lines were being constructed to serve the then new Kings Cross and St.Pancras stations, their trajectory was set to cross the grounds of St.Pancras’s graveyard. Rather than redirect the route away from or around the burial site, Blomfield was charged with relocating the contents of the graves elsewhere, an unsavoury task which he keenly delegated to his apprentice, the young Hardy.

The mass exhumation, grotesque in itself, led to a legacy even more curious than the events that created it; ghost stories, leylines and an ancient occult geometry. Hardy instructed that graves be repositioned around the base of an ash tree that lay to the east of the church buildings. Throughout its life time, the ash has continued to grow from within and amongst the weathered gothic headstones that surround it to create quite the (spectral) spectacle. The graves, like the corpses they bear, are jumbled; a frantic mass of jagged stones that break the earth as fractured concentric circles, imposing the macabre on an otherwise peaceful area of the churchyard. Bodies lay upon bodies, graves upon graves.

Hardy’s discomfort with the removal and relocation of the remains is made obvious in the lines of his The Levelled Churchyard (extract above). The words bring revenance to the place, depicting cries from beyond the grave; the unsettling groans of a disrupted dead resonate throughout the poem. Such a discomfort is even more apparent, more biting still, when visiting the tree in person.

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At times, the tree itself can seem alive; it reaches up from the depths of the underworld, dragging the surrounding dead with it. The fencing that borders this disturbing site seems more appropriate in the keeping of something in rather than keeping it out, especially as night falls. As Battista et al state ‘There are those that believe that spirits can gain access to the world of the living via the roots of trees.’[2]. If ever such a claim could be made of a place, it is here. The Hardy Tree certainly appears to offer itself as evidence of such an access point; the roots of the ash physically bound to the bodies and memorials of those who once inhabited the locale, perhaps hinting at a gateway to the ‘otherside’ ? The graves themselves are almost illegible, centuries of exposure to the elements have removed much of the engravings that gave testimony to the dead of St. Pancras; now it is the sheer spectacle of a place in which man and nature reside together, that acts as the signifier for all of the collective memories that are buried amongst its roots.

What is perhaps most striking about the Hardy Tree is this sense of entanglement with nature. Where in the past, trees were the preferred method for commemorating life and death, for marking burial[3], the act became outmoded, giving way to the more viable and perhaps personal use of the headstone. What Hardy offers through his tree of the same namesake, is a return, a return to nature in order to commemorate life and death. Even if such a return was the result of a rather utilitarian approach to land space (the use of the area is if nothing else economical), the result has been something far more affective; the tree has inherited the very memories of the bodies it shelters and is beyond all, a curiosity even within the traditions of burial and place making. It stands as a site where man has quite literally been brought back to the earth and its life cycle.

The ash that stands within the grounds of St. Pancras Old Church is a comportment of man and nature, a bizarre manifestation of London’s haunted past that bears the spirits of both the jumbled dead that lay under and within it, and the life that has continued to spring forth. Here man and nature are eternally bound, inseparable and indistinct, and this is perhaps the most discomforting element of the site, the muddling of peoples and place, as Hardy laments; ‘And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!’.

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[1] Hardy, T., 1995, ‘The Levelled Churchyard‘ (1882) in Hardy’s Selected Poems, Dover Publishing, USA.

[2] Battista, K., LaBelle, B., Penner, B., Pile, S., Rendell, J., 2005,  ‘Exploring ‘ an area of outstanding natural beauty’: a treasure hunt around King’s Cross, London’, Cultural Geographies,  12, pp.429-462.

[3] Bevan-Jones, R., 2002, The Ancient Yew, Windgather Press, UK.

 

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One thought on “The Hardy Tree, St Pancras Old Church, London.

  1. Pingback: Tourist Tuesday: Hardy Tree | cooking is messy

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