So when I was at Highgate I picked up a couple of books, one of which was called “31 London Cemeteries to see before you die.” Despite the problematic title I found it to be really useful, and it led me to the Old St Pancras Churchyard, which is famous for Hardy’s tree. As in Thomas Hardy. As in Tess of the d’Ubervilles (a laboured read in high school if I remember correctly). Anyway, there is a big ash tree that is surrounded by flat, old slab-type gravestones. Back when Mr. Hardy was an apprentice architect it was his task to relocated the remains of thousands of interments that needed to be moved for the expansion of the St Pancras/King’s Cross station lines. He took many of the headstones and placed them around the tree. It’s quite an iconic image, but for some reason I always thought it was at the Tower Hamlets cemetery.Of course, the first thing I did was make a beeline for the tree. It is unfortunately (for photography purposes) surrounded by an iron fence which in turn is surrounded by a hedge. So unless you are really tall and can photograph it from above, or have an extremely wide-angle lens, you won’t be able to get the whole thing in one shot. I took a lot of photos of the tree, but with a fence and hedge surrounding the stones, my shortness, and the failing light (and light rain) I really struggled to get an acceptable handheld exposure.
After photographing the tree, I explored the rest of the churchyard, which has some old tombs and gravestones scattered about the grounds. Most of the stones were so worn away they were illegible. With good reason too – St Pancras Church is thought to be the oldest place of Christian worship in England (since 314 CE). This was one of the few places where Catholics could be buried in London after the Reformation. There’s a memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft and Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son William is buried here too. Many French refugees fleeing the French Revolution are buried here as well.
The church, though small (and old), was interesting. It was fun to read the really old tombstones in really old English (old with a small “o”). The altar is quite old (6th century) but the church has been rebuilt many times. In fact, it was undergoing some kind of restoration (plumbing) while I was there.
Afterwards, back outside, while taking a closer look at what I thought was an elaborate memorial near the entrance (but turned out to be an elaborate sundial – which I have since learned was put up by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a local benefactress) I came across the bench where the Fab Four took photos for their “Mad Day Out”. Who would’ve known that the Beatles were a fan of cemeteries too?
Quality of Monuments: Old and worn. There are few headstones/tombs left here, and what is left seems more like stone decoration than the remains of an old cemetery. The large tomb of John Sloane provided inspiration for the iconic red phone boxes London is known for. However, for me, Hardy’s Tree is by far the most interesting monument in the park.
Cemetery Grounds: This is basically a park now, a green space with beautiful trees for people to hang out in. It does not look or feel like a cemetery at all. It’s a very pleasant place to be in.
Visitors: There was a group of senior citizens going on tour through the park/cemetery while I was there, plus locals just using the park as locals do, to read books, chill, or play with their dog.
Photographer Notes: As mentioned earlier, a really wide-angle (or step-ladder) would help to photograph the headstones around Hardy’s Tree.
Cemetery: Old St Pancras Church and Churchyard (St Pancras Gardens today)
Location: Just north of St Pancras station. Walk north up the left side of the station. About a block after the station building ends, you’ll find the cemetery/park to your left.
Inaugurated: 314 C.E. (possibly, for the church). It’s been a public park since 1877.
Hours: Open from 7:00 till dusk (about 19:00 in summer)