I went for a walk last week. Birthdays do all sorts for a man – remind me of mortality, prove that ageing involves as much gravity as gravitas, allow for a bodily stock take, a sort of naming of parts, just to ensure the ones I counted last year are still with me. But they also involve books. I am given books and I’m grateful. This year I received ‘Secret London – An Unusual Guide’ which if you want to find out the weirdy places in London is for you. Hence the walk.
So, there I was in chapter one and on my way to Church. St Pancras Old Church. It nestles behind the throbbing multiple stations of Kings Cross and St Pancras and is still used for its designated purpose though that hasn’t always been the case. Back in the late 18th century this ancient place of worship had fallen into disuse and while burials still took place, no one really wanted to spend time hereabouts. Well one loved up couple perhaps.
Mary Wollstonecraft is in one sense the mother of feminism. She is best known for A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason. Some gal, my sort of woman.
She had an unconventional life too eventually marrying William Godwin a philosopher and giving birth, shortly before she died aged 38 to the second Mary Wollstonecraft. She would visit her mother’s grave where it is said she and her lover planned their elopement. The lover? Percy Bysshe Shelley. The younger Mary was to become the wondrous author of Frankenstein, the precursor to so much fantastic literature.
Nearby and dominating this unprepossessing tomb (empty now as the bodies were taken to Bournemouth) is the more ornate memorial to Sir John Soane. He was quite some man, designing both my local Picture Gallery in Dulwich and the Bank of England. Today his museum is a must see if you want to obtain a sense of life for the well heeled in late 18th and early 19th century London. I must do a post about it soon.
He fell out with his son so much that he disinherited him and left the house and contents to the nation so long as it was kept exactly as was when he died. Something of an aggrandising egoist Soane’s collection of Egyptian artefacts and other items is worth the entrance alone but given they are displayed as they were back in Soane’s day they really are living history.
And what, you who know the UK do you see when you look on the memorial? Sir Giles Gilbert Scott saw a phone box. The now world renowned red boxes started here.
The old church stood in the way of progress, however, so in the middle of the 1800s when the Midland Railway terminus at Kings Cross was being built a significant number of bodies had to be moved. Supervising this work was a young architectural apprentice Thomas Hardy. He was 25 when he took the job and the macabre spectacle may have had an impact on him. Certainly some of the themes he highlighted in his works, riding roughshod over tradition for instance, might have seen the light here. One Hardy poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard” shows this only too well
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaim in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’
There are others here, with famous connections: the youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin for instance. And Dickens used the graveyard as the setting for grave robbers in A Tale of Two Cities.
I moved on to the replacement church, St Pancras parish church built in the 18 teens for £90,000 a huge sum and the most expensive house of worship to be build since St Paul’s in the 17th century.
Today it sits alongside the fast moving and depressing Euston Road opposite the eponymous station, but you have to stop and stare at the Coade Stone Caryatids on the exterior.
These are replicas of Grecian statues at the Erechtheum at the Acropolis and made of an artificial stone from a stone yard founded by Eleanor Coade in 1769. That sounds odd enough but this cheap material was made to a secret formula and used in many public monuments and busts of the time. Its ability to resist frost made it a natch.
Oh and the best and saddest part of my stroll. Well, back to Hardy. When they moved the bodies the headstones were just stacked up.
One collection was left in situ and a tree grew through the centre. Today the Hardy Tree is a poignant memorial to those displaced souls that were sacrificed in the name of progress, as many are still to this day.
The grander Burnett-Coutts memorial to a number of the notable people displaced somehow doesn’t have the same resonance as this humble tree.