February 19 2016 – London.
Last weekend, and over far too many glasses of red wine for a Sunday night a friend told me about St Pancras Old Church and its small cemetery. I had not heard of it before, and it sounded like just the sort of place I would like to visit. One of the things I love about London is hearing about, or finding for myself, places of interest that just seem to be lost to the general public and hidden from the main tourist trail. Places that have a long history or are a small, yet key chapter in the tale of London, the UK or further afield. I am sure this is true for all cities and large towns, there are stories there to be found, if you look in the right places.
St Pancras Old Church is hardly hidden from view. It is right next to St Pancras station, one of the busiest train stations in London, but it is way past the entrance to the station, and as we well know, most folk just walk the popular busy routes. Straying up side streets is too slow – or maybe just too dangerous (sorry for the additional drama – I have been reading Steven King !).
St Pancras Old Church can be found on St Pancras Road, it is believed to be one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England, and is dedicated to the martyr St Pancras. St Pancras was a very early Roman Christian and was beheaded at the age of 14 in 304 – his skull remains in St Pancras church, but the one in Rome.
The church’s history remains a bit murky, with conflicting versions of when the site was first used for worship. One version suggests that this was consecrated ground as far back as 314, while another suggests the ninth century. Whatever its origins the church and the surrounding area were largely left deserted in the 14th century when the population moved up to what is now Kentish Town due to flooding from the River Fleet. The church was left in a state of disrepair and was only occasionally used until it was renovated in the 19th century.
To add to its mystery, due to its state of disrepair it was one of last churches to hold a Catholic mass after the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s and it is said to be one of the last places in England to toll a bell for mass. It was also one of the few places in London were Catholics were buried, with the son of composer Johan Sebastian Bach being buried here. I did not find his grave.I did find others though.
The grounds of the church are as interesting as the history of the site. The tomb of architect John Sloane was the inspiration for one of Britain’s most loved and well known icons – the red telephone box, which were designed by architect Giles Scott once he had become the patron of the John Sloane Museum. It is one of a very small number of grade 1 listed monuments in the UK.
Burials were stopped in the churchyard in 1854 when construction started on the new St Pancras station. In the mid 1860s a young architect by the name of Thomas Hardy (THAT Thomas Hardy – he wasn’t born an author !) was placed in charge of the moving of a number of those buried and the Hardy Tree still remains. This was the attraction that drew me to visit, though I have to say that being made to read all ten gazillion pages of Tess of the bloody D’Urbervilles at age 16 was one of my most painful memories of high school and I swore I would never have anything to do with Hardy ever again. This small section of the churchyard is quite remarkable and something I have not seen before.
I took a slow stroll around the churchyard, the grounds are in a nice area for this part of London and there were a few people around, walking dogs and at least one other visitor taking photos, I guess it is not that secret
Eventually I made my way inside the church building, it has a very plain and simple interior, mostly from the renovation in the 19th century. I do not know anything about this triptych.
As it was Friday and a day off work and as it was also gloriously sunny I had decided to walk from St Pancras to Liverpool St Station via Somerset House on the north bank of the Thames. I love Somerset House, but we have not been there for ages, it does have a really nice cafe in Fernandez and Wells and it was here I went to for coffee and eggs on toast – for a very late, and well earned breakfast. Surprisingly there were no free exhibitions on, so after lunch I carried on my journey to the station and caught the train home.
I love finding different places, in and around London; there are so many to find, if you look hard enough. What I particularly liked about St Pancras Old Church was it had links to so many historical figures, so not just a nice place to visit, but an education as well.