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The Thomas Hardy Tree

Hardy tree St Pancras London

This morning I started to do just that by paying a visit to the St Pancras Old Church round the back of King’s Cross Station. The church itself has ancient Roman roots although the current building is largely Victorian. Outside in the churchyard there’s one tree in particular that is certainly worth missing a train for. It’s an ash tree encircled by gravestones. This is the Thomas Hardy Tree.

Before gaining fame as a novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy trained to be an architect with Arthur Blomfield based in Covent Garden. During the 1860s the Midland Railway was being built through the grounds of St Pancras Old Church and consequently there was a need to move graves from its path. The unenviable task of exhuming human remains and dismantling tombs fell to the young Hardy who (to cut a long story short) created a deeply fascinating and moving architectural installation. He carefully placed the remaining stones around an ash tree.

Today the graves are jumbled, a wild mass of jagged stones and thick roots forming disjointed circles. In an otherwise peaceful churchyard, here is a discomforting reminder of the cost of constant redevelopment. Indeed, Hardy was clearly deeply troubled by the removal and relocation of human remains and writes about it in his unsettling poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’:

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!’”

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Hardy tree St Pancras London