"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
~Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities)
Tucked away behind the Victorian grandeur of St Pancras railway station, St Pancras Old Church(not to be confused with its grander offspring down the road, the cleverly named St Pancras New Church) is an interesting, if obscure, attraction worth missing a train, or two.
“St Pancras Old Church is truly old. It is reputed to be the oldest church in Britain. Once pleasantly situated on the banks of the River Fleet and overlooking a Roman encampment, the site is thought to have been used for Christian worship well before the arrival of St Augustine at the end of the sixth century. However, the name of the church (and surrounding parish) may date from that mission..." (A Guide to St Pancras Church available from St Pancras Old Church, Pancras Road, London NW1)
History was not kind, bomb damage during World War II and desecration by Satanists in 1985 tell the story of our own times. Today, however, it shows no glimpse of its traumatic past.
I wandered into the small church and found the spiral staircase open, so I explored the library upstairs full of overstuffed armchairs, and pamphlets on the history and spiritual significance of both the church and the church yard.
Tucked away close to the railway lines is the remarkable sight of an ash tree intertwined with rows of gravestones, known as the Hardy Tree.
Charles Dickens makes reference to Old St. Pancras Churchyard in his Tale of Two Cities as the churchyard in which Roger Cly was buried. Indeed there are a number of French aristocrats who sought refuge in London buried here.
Here too, poet Percy Shelley fortuitously met the young Mary Godwin, future author of 'Frankenstein', whilst she was visiting her mother's grave - her mother being of course Mary Wollstonecraft, author of 'Vindication of the Rights of Women' (a book written long before its time).
The stone bearing Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s name is not hers alone. Her husband erected it soon after her death and, demonstrating an accurate judgement of how history would remember her (a judgement so singularly lacking when he rushed into publication of the too-much, too-soon Memoirs) he had it inscribed thus:
of the Rights of Woman
Born 27 April 1759
Died 10 September 1797
When Godwin died, nearly four decades later, he was buried in the same place, and his entry was carved on another face of the square, rationalist marker. His second wife survived him by five years, and she too gets one surface. (The final face is left blank; had he needed a third spouse, there was space.) With so many divorces nowadays, will we see a trend for multiple occupancy burial sites? Polyamorous posterity?
Because of the earlier tampering with the graveyard there are few headstones left. Architect John Soane has a striking tomb of his own design. It is easily recognisable as the prototype design for Giles Gilbert Scott’s iconic London telephone box.
the monument as seen by Giles Gilbert Scott