Tucked away behind the bustle of building works at St Pancras and King’s Cross is a tiny church, one of the oldest in London, called St Pancras Old Church. Step inside: it is almost always open. It is eerily peaceful and quiet. Not a soul to be seen.
It’s a church with an amazing history: excavations have found Norman masonry as well as Roman bricks and tiles. For centuries it was a popular spot for Londoners to walk to, being just a mile from London at the time, and was described as a remote country church surrounded by fields. It had its ups and downs: Oliver Cromwell used St Pancras Old Church as a stable and barracks for his troops during the Civil War. The church’s treasures were hurriedly hidden from the soldiers and not refound till the restoration of the tower two hundred years later. The river Fleet once flowed beside it, channeled away in the 19th century to make way for the railways.
Before the railways, the area of Somers Town around the church was being developed as a well-to-do neighbourhood, with fine houses at The Polygon (now a housing block). In the eighteenth century, the pioneer of women’s education and rights Mary Wollstonecraft lived there with her husband William Godwin. There is a fading tomb to them both in the churchyard. Mary’s daughter grew up to become Mary Shelley, the author of the Frankenstein story. It’s said that it was in this churchyard that the poet Shelley first saw and fell in love with young Mary while she was visiting her mother’s grave. He lived nearby at 5 Chapel Terrace, now subsumed by the railway arches.
The little church has played a role in London’s literature. Charles Dickens, a Camden man from time to time, casts the church in the Tale of Two Cities as the place where Jerry Cruncher came to ‘fish’ - another word for bodysnatching. The novelist Thomas Hardy also knew the graveyard well. Before writing his novels, he studied architecture under a man called Arthur Blomfield who was asked to supervise the exhumation of Old St Pancras Church graveyard in 1865. Hardy was brought in to take on this unsavory task and piled the old headstones together in an artistic circle around an ash tree. The tree, known as Hardy’s tree, is still there, the headstones now beginning to be engulfed by the trunk as it has grown.
And there is one other remarkable thing to discover in this churchyard. In the centre is a grand tomb, the burial place of the London architect Sir John Soane. He himself designed the Monument at its centre on the death of his wife in 1815. Its striking shape is said to be the inspiration for Giles Gilbert Scott’s winning entry for the design of the K2 London Telephone box some 110 years later. It is one of only two Grade 1 listed monuments in London.
Spot the difference
If you ever find yourself at a loose end in King’s Cross, take 5 minutes to wander to the back of the station, away from the Euston Road, and discover this tiny but significant London church. It’s a treat.