The railway revolution changed Britain’s landscapes forever. New cities emerged. Ancient villages declined. Hills, rivers and valleys were levelled, tunnelled and bridged. Natural features formed over millennia were transformed within decades. Journeys of days reduced to hours while clocks and timetables set daily life to the minute. And the dead literally made way for the living.
There’s a startling example in the grounds of St Pancras Old Church. The Hardy Tree is one of the strangest sights in any British churchyard. Railings ring a forked ash tree, broad as a bus is long. Beneath the branches stand dense rows of headstones. Over time the tree’s roots have spread between the stones in a tangle of life and death. On one, a sole word remains: ‘Remember’.
St Pancras churchyard was originally one of the largest in London. Notable burials included writer Mary Wollstonecraft and architect Sir John Soane. A short way from the Hardy Tree, the domed top of Soane’s tomb apparently inspired the shape of Britain’s red telephone boxes. By the 1840s though St Pancras Old Church was derelict and the grounds neglected. Charles Dickens names the churchyard in A Tale of Two Cities as a haunt for ‘fishing’ (grave robbing).
In 1868, the Midland Railway Company began building St Pancras station. The abandoned churchyard seemed an ideal place to run the line into their new London terminus. Before work could begin, the grounds had to be cleared. The grim task of disinterring the dead fell to a young draughtsman from Dorset, Thomas Hardy. Before his success as a novelist and poet, Hardy trained in London as an architect.
Hardy spent many hours overseeing the St Pancras exhumations. One evening a coffin fell apart and inside were two skulls. Years later an architect friend asked Hardy: ‘Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St Pancras?’ Though the ash is known as the Hardy Tree, it is unknown whether he was involved in placing the headstones around it.
The reason too remains a mystery. To protect the tree? Preserve the stones? Protest at the railway? Whatever the motive, the tree is a powerful reminder of the bonds between nature and nurture, progress and history, the future and the past. While the tree’s roots and branches grow, the stones and railings decay. Passing trains clank and hum on the other side of a nearby wall. These days, their carriages are empty while the churchyard is full of life.