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.|
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.|
|Blue water fountain; Baroness Burden-Coutts obelisk in the background.|
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|
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|
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|
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.
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.|
|The Beatles © 1968, Mal Evans|
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.|