The cemetery alongside London’s St. Pancras Old Church, one of England’s oldest places of Christian worship, and is the site of a fascinating story.
Behind the church, the roots of a large ash tree interlace their way among rows of gravestones. This strange tangle of life and death is named after the poet Thomas Hardy. Who in the following decades would publish many classic novels such as Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. But this isn’t the actual resting place of the late author.
The church itself has ancient roots, although the current building is largely Victorian. It was originally perched on the banks of the river Fleet. Thanks to a 19th century railway development, it’s now culverted and entirely hidden from view.
Britain’s rail system was experiencing immense growth, and London was outgrowing its existing lines. In order to accommodate the growing population of commuters, an expansion was planned—directly affecting the graveyard at St. Pancras. In order to make way for the new train line, they contracted an architecture firm to perform the sensitive task of exhuming the remains and reburying them at another site.
During the 1860s, Thomas Hardy was the youngest employee at the architecture firm, which was tasked with relocating gravestones. The responsibility of moving the gravestones rested on Hardy, who circled them around this infamous tree.
After completion, there remained hundreds of headstones, along with the question of what to do with them. Hardy’s solution was to place them in a circular pattern around an ash tree in the churchyard, in a spot that would not be disturbed by the railway. Over the past 150 years or so, the tree has continued to grow, absorbing many of the stones in the process.
But now the Hardy tree may be threatened. According to Camden New Journal, a suspicious fungus has been found among its roots. If left unchecked, the parasitic fungus Perenniporia fraxinea can severely damage its host. Three people were killed in Birmingham in 1999, when a diseased ash toppled onto a road. Camden Council is not taking any chances. The tree has now been cordoned off with a fence.
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