Old St. Pancras’ Hardy Tree

The graveyard of Old St. Pancras church is full of interest: tucked away behind the station, it contains several things worth missing a train for, not least some venerable old trees.

The churchyard has survived much as it must have appeared in the mid 19th century when the last significant alterations were made. Its architectural treasures remain gently crumbling in Victorian aspic, while its botanic notables have been left to grow old gracefully. Here’s a glimpse of the St. Pancras Road entrance courtesy of Google Streetview:

 
The church itself has ancient roots although the current building is largely Victorian. It was originally perched on the banks of the semi-mythical river Fleet which, thanks to 19th century railway development, is now culverted and entirely hidden from view. This railway work also resulted in the churchyard being built on and the consequent need to move graves from the path of progress.

I do not know whether any campaigning took place to stop the new railway slicing through this consecrated land, but I wonder if moving the graves and deconsecrating the land would have caused emotions to run high?

The job of removing the gravestones and exhuming the interred fell to one Thomas Hardy (yes, the Thomas Hardy) who, to cut a long story short (you can read the longer story here) created a deeply fascinating architectural installation…

The Hardy Tree, an Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) surrounded by gravestones, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
Fraxinus Excelsior: The Hardy Ash Tree forms the focal point of Thomas' visionary tombstone wheel

It is a remarkable, ambiguous memorial reminiscent of a 20th century art intervention. A wheel of tombstones, each spoke made up of two rows back to back, at its apex is an Ash tree (Fraxinus excelsior) now grown so large that its roots ooze over and through the stones, the slow force of growth has cracked and broken them in places. The tree must be at least 163 years old – a youngster compared to how old the species can become. The whole ensemble is now known as the ‘Hardy Tree’ and takes an unconventional form inspired by expediency rather than the conventional architectural aesthetics of the day. Its purpose was surely to provide a fitting monument for the relatives of the moved, for some of the disinterred may have been recently buried judging by the style of the gravestones.

And the other things to look out for in Old St. Pancras churchyard? See below:

Burdett-Coutts monument, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
The Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial: Grade 1 listed high camp gothic pinnacle featuring Portland stone doggies, mosaic pansies and some lichen covered remnants of wrought iron railings.

 

Sir John Soane's masoleum, Old St. Pancras churchyard, London
Sir John Soane's Memorial: An interesting, somewhat deconstructed assemblage of architectural elements carved from stone of varying hues. Allegedly the inspiration behind the red London phone box (a four-cornered low dome is featured in the centrepiece), it might also have inspired the inventors of Lego.

 

London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia), Old St Pancras churchyard, London
London Plane: A massive and splendid two hundred year old London Plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) encircled by an iron bench.

And if you’re still interested, I have posted more photos (including one of the Portland stone doggie) in an Old St. Pancras churchyard Flickr set.

On another Plane

I’ve been working up to the inevitable London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) post for some time but this, you may be pleased to know, is not it. Instead I’d like to compare notes on one of it’s parents, the Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis).

Platanus Orientalis foliage
Plane difference: The Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis) can be distinguished from the London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) by its more deeply lobed leaves

Two examples of these relatives of the acerifolia (Maple-leaved) tree inhabit Brunswick Square Gardens in the heart of Bloomsbury next door to Coram’s Fields and the fascinating Foundling Museum.

These gardens are what remain of an undoubtedly fine Georgian Square noted as the fictional home of Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. Now they are surrounded by more modern developments: no buildings of those romantic days survive and the small public park that is now Brunswick Square Gardens is managed by Camden Council.

One reminder of the past (although very much part of the present) is the enormous and venerable London Plane (P. x acerifolia) that dominates the gardens. This magnificent tree, possibly a remnant from the original development, will have witnessed many changes around the Square and tolerated a varied cocktail of noxious fumes during its centuries on the spot.

In its shadow are two equally remarkable Oriental Planes (P. oriental). This pair – of indeterminate age – are Bonsai trees in comparison. Although much smaller and easier to miss they have arguably more character; they exhibit pot-bellied, burry old boles reminiscient of ancient oaks and have elegantly spreading canopies developed over decades, if that is a suitably ageing unit to use.

Platanus orientalis were classified by Linnaeus and were so named due to their origin in the east. ‘Oriental’ in eighteenth century botanical circles referred to anywhere east of Sweden, in this case the Balkans and Turkey. The Oriental Plane has been a feature and often the focal point of Greek villages, the late Roger Deakin mentions an ancient hollow Plane on the island of Lesbos in his book ‘Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees‘:

‘At what must have been the village centre, the living remains of an enormous oriental plane stood. Its massive trunk was hollow and had broken off ten feet above the ground, perhaps as a result of a lightning bolt. It was charred inside and out, yet fresh living boughs were again springing from a tree that must once have shaded the spring and steam bath.’

Platanus Orientalis, Brunswick Square Gardens, London
Plane to see: One of the Oriental Plane trees (Platanus orientalis) in Brunswick Square Gardens, London showing it's bulbous bole and typical multistemmed, spreading form

My two gnarled ancestors of the London Plane are typical in their growth – according to my research the Oriental Plane can be a large tree sometimes attaining the great size common in its progeny, but often becomes multistemmed and spreading.

I am very fond of these two trees, they are not like other public trees in central London which have to take on trim and uniform shapes defined by triennial pruning regimes laid down by local authorities fearful of the potential damage a splintered arboreal limb might cause a no-win-no-fee solicitor or his clients.

Check out the various Planes of Brunswick Square Gardens on Google street view:

Further reading:

  1. P. orientalis entry on Wikipedia
  2. Corsham Court Oriental plane ‘most spreading tree in UK’ – BBC new story from 07/06/2011
  3. Take a look at my Plane tree set on Flickr.