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Friday, June 14, 2013

St. Pancras Old Church: Famous Feminists, Fiction Writers, Musicians and the River Fleet!

"London is a place that is always reinventing itself--busy building the future with a nod to the past; it is a geographic location and a state of mind." ~Jaqueline Biggs, writer 

   As Camley Street Park closed behind us in the early evening, we looked left and saw the six cranes which hang over our mooring spot at Kings Cross just down the street. To our left was the gated entry to Saint Pancras Cruising Club. As we looked straight ahead we saw across the street, the brick railway viaduct supporting the massive rail lines which deliver amongst others, the Eurostar trains into St. Pancras Station from France. 
   And slightly off to the right is what we Americans term an underpass--a kind of road tunnel carrying traffic along underneath something else. In this case the something else is the railway bridge. We walked along in the shadowy underside of the bridge, barely lit by artificial lights, as it turned quickly around a short curve, leaving Kings Cross, Camley Park and the Regents Canal behind. Ahead as the sidewalk curved 'round was a tall wrought iron gate on our left. The brick wall into which it was installed intersected with the brick railway viaduct.  The gate stood open in the watery green light of an early spring
   Up the stairs we found ourselves in a lovely oasis of woodland and gravestones, monuments and gardens, circled about by the St. Pancras Coroner's Office and court, St. Pancras Hospital and Camden NHS,  an old building full of flats and coming back round to the front of Old St, Pancras Church. The gardens and church are enclosed in wrought iron with lovely golden ornamental gates. 
As we came up the stairs into the old churchyard and look to our left we saw those cranes again--over the churchyard wall, behind which are the massive railroad terminus tracks of St. Pancras Station.
To our right at the top of the stairs just inside the gardens is this lovely building--the coroners offices.
This is the location of the bench upon which four young lads sat for a photo shoot on July 28, 1968.
St. Pancras Hospital and Camden NHS buildings ring the church yard and gardens above and below.

EARLY HISTORY
   Humans have made much of this slight hill which used to over look the River Fleet tumbling by to the Thames at sixty feet wide. Pagans worshipped here and The Roman Twentieth Legion assembled on this hill to meet Queen Boudicca as she fought to drive them from the Island. The deciding battle was fought by a bridge which crossed the River Fleet nearby.
   Christians began their worship at this site as far back as 314 ACE. Saint Pancras was Phrygian--an orphan who chose death over dissembling against his faith, for which the Roman Emperor Diocletian had Pancras beheaded--at age fourteen. 
   The Village of Old St. Pancras which grew around the church was abandoned sometime in the 15th century as folks moved to nearby Kentish town where the flooding river Fleet could not reach, and there was less clay in the soil making it easier to dig a well.  
   It seems unbelievable now but in the 1600's St. Pancras Old church was far away from London's one square mile of city life, standing amongst country fields with nary a home nearby--a bucolic chapel of ease by the banks of the burbling river Fleet.  During the Revolutionary War Parliamentary troops were billeted at the site and some precious holy relics were lost, including some Elizabethan and Jacobean silverware.
  By the mid 1700's the river had been buried beneath the ground--forgotten and forlorn. The same could be said for Old St. Pancras Church as the city encroached upon its grounds, stealing the peace and quiet along with its parishioners. 
   By the mid 1800's all parochial rights were transferred to a new parish church a mile away in Euston Road and by the mid 1800's the Old Church sat in silent ruins as a tide of industry grew up around the site engulfing and encroaching on the churchyard and its silent inhabitants. 
1815 engraving of St. Pancras Church with the River Fleet flowing past in the foreground, courtesy Old St. Pancras Church.
 CONTEMPORARY TIMES
Blue water fountain; Baroness Burden-Coutts obelisk in the background.
   In 1925 the floor was relaid in wood and some of the more distasteful Victorian changes were removed, uncovering some of the church's past glory. It was badly damaged in WWII and repairs have taken place in 1948, 1978, 1985, and 2003. One may visit the church  and if the warden is not too busy she will happily offer a tour and tales regarding the churchyard and gardens. Subsequent work has led to caring community which enfolds Old St. Pancras into its bosom. One can see within its walls historical artifacts from the 6th-15th centuries.
   We were struck by how small the church is inside, seating at most 100 people. It is a cozy atmosphere with a loving, beating heart enshrined by the local community. While services are still held at Old St. Pancras every Sunday, it is also available for use by the public. The warden told us local music groups like to rent the church for practice and gigs since the acoustics are great the the venue is intimate--80 people can make it seem like a packed house! When we entered, a local folk band was practicing for a Friday evening gig--and they sounded great! You won't be sorry if you visit this lovely old church. It will welcome you with a hug. 
The river Fleet once flowed past here. St. Pancras road follows the old river path now.
"I am here in a place beyond fear and desire." Inscription on marble to the left, by Emily Young.
The magnificent details of the carved entry and the wrought iron hinges on the wooden door.
Local folks musicians practice for a gig later in the week.

THE CHURCHYARD: FEMINISTS AND FICTION WRITERS 
    Back outside we wandered through the lovely gardens which are the remains of two graveyards: St. Pancras and part of St. Giles in the Fields. In times past Londoners used to take the country air by strolling the one mile to "St. Pancras in the Fyldes." It was here in this church yard that Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, lodging at 5 Chapel Terrace (now swallowed up in the railway arches), first saw and fell in love with Mary Godwin, who was visiting the grave of her mother--Mary Wollstonecraft!
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
   When the church warden casually mentioned Mary Wollstonecraft was buried here I nearly fell to my knees in astonishment! I have two formal minors with my English major degree--one of which is a minor in Women's Studies. 
   Wollstonecraft was a pioneer of the very first wave of feminism, publishing her Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 which called for equality of the sexes. In her novel The Wrongs of Woman, Mary wrote: "We cannot, without depraving our minds, endeavour to please a lover or husband, but in proportion as he pleases us." Wollstonecraft also wrote at length about women's strong sexual desires, pointing  out how degrading and disingenuous it was to pretend otherwise. Her writing served as lamp light to later feminists in the United States and Canada as well as in her homeland. 
Mary Godwin Shelley
   Married to English radical intellectual and political journalist William Godwin, Mary gave birth to a daughter also named Mary (1797-1851)--and died ten days later of puerperal fever. Her daughter was raised in a home without any real love or guidance. William was a cold, distant father preferring the company of his friends Erasmus Darwin and his grandson Charles, luminary William Blake, critic William Hazlitt, and poet Charles Lamb.
   Young Mary was left to figure out her own education, wandering from brilliant mind to brilliant mind, and visiting her mother's grave at Old St, Pancras when solitude demanded it. She taught herself to spell by tracing the letters on Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's tombstone.
Mary Wollstonecraft's grave stone
   Eventually William Godwin married again. His second wife did not approve of young Mary who was sent away to Dundee for two years. When she returned at age sixteen, Mary caught the eye Shelley. He and Mary used to rendezvous at her mother's grave in the churchyard. Eventually they eloped, and by age eighteen Mary was hanging out with a very rebellious illustrious cowd which included Gordon Lord Byron who dared her to write a story to strike terror into the hearts of men.
   The result was the novel Frankenstein which has been made into more than 50 films. Her first poem published at age ten, by age nineteen Mary Godwin Shelley was a famous author who hung out in the cemetery keeping company with the dead!
   Other notable folks whose stones lie here are Dr. John Polidori. Another of Byron's companions, he wrote the first vampire novel; former New Jersey Governor William Franklin, illegitimate son of American Statesman Benjamin Franklin was also laid to rest in Old St. Pancras cemetery as is musician Johann Christian Bach, the eleventh and youngest child of Johann Sebastian Bach. Cecil Rhodes, founder of the South African diamond company De Beers, whose name also lends itself to the Rhodes Scholarship which is funded by his estate is still at rest here on the West side. Many foreign Roman Catholic dignitaries and aristocrats were also buried at Old St. Pancras.

DIGGING UP THE DEAD 
   Twice the Midland Railway has obtained the right to encroach on the church yards. Graves were disturbed and St. Pancras well was sealed up. Wollstonecraft's tombstone remains at Old St. Pancras but her grandson Percy Florence Shelley had her remains moved to the family tomb in Bournemouth in 1851. 
Thomas Hardy
   In the 1860's a young architect was then employed by the Railway to excavate the graves of Old St. Pancras, making way for the Midland Railway terminus to St. Pancras station. That man was to become a famous writer and poet: Thomas Hardy. Once remains were disinterred and dealt with, Hardy had most of the tombstones moved, arranging them around a tree behind the church, which slowly over the past 150 years grew in and around them, creating a lovely memorial of its own.
   The graveyard was closed to burials in 1854 and the gardens were opened in 1877. Baroness Burden-Coutts of Highgate--the last lay rector--presented the memorial obelisk listing the names of the dead who had been buried at Old St. Pancras and subsequently disinterred. 

The Thomas Hardy Tree--an Ash with its roots entwined around the gravestones fanning out from its base.

THE ARCHITECTS AND THE RED PHONE BOX
   Architect Sir John Soane is another luminary whose grade I listed mausoleum still stands in the church yard cum gardens. John designed the plans for the Bank of England, Dulwich Art Gallery, Royal Hospital Chelsea, redesign of parts of the Palace of Westminster, several London area churches, and many Irish stately homes. Sir John designed the mausoleum when his beloved wife died in 1815. A Freemason, Sir John ensured there would be no Christian symbolism on the mausoleum which does include Freemason symbols of pine cone finials and an ouroboros--a snake swallowing its tail which is the symbol for infinity. When Soane died in 1837 he was interred with his wife.
Sir John Soanes mausoleum--the inspiration for Sir Gilbert Scott's red phone boxes.
   Nearly a hundred years later Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of Battersea Power Station was a trustee of the Sir John Soanes museum. The General Post Office was seeking a design for public phone boxes. One of three architects invited to submit designs, his was based on the classical lines and domed mausoleum designed by Soanes and it won. 

The Beatles © 1968, Mal Evans
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
July 28th, 1968 four young British lads are on a photo shoot called Mad Day Out. Followed by several photographers, John, George, Paul and Ringo had their pictures taken at several London venues, among them Old St. Pancras Gardens where they stood amongst hollyhocks, sat on a bench in the gardens and drank from the garden fountain. The pictures were taken by Mal Evans and ended up on the sleeves of the Red and Blue Album compilations. 
The Beatles in St, Pancras Gardens © 1968, Mal Evans





   We had no idea this lovely green garden existed--a gated and fenced place apart from the thrumming traffic and rumbling railway which define the current boundaries and perhaps also confine the spirits of those who have had a long association with this peaceful place. 
The front gates with St. Pancras Road passing by, following the path of the River Fleet.

1 comment:

Carol Palin said...

Thanks for that blog Jaq.
Wonderful! We visited St Pancras Church and gardens when in London a couple of years ago and I wish we could have brought you along! You managed to bring the place to life with your knowledge of past ‘masters’ as it were in your excellent descriptive writing. I love it. Best wishes to you both. xx