Towards the back of St Pancras Churchyard, partially obscured by hedges, black railings and a larger perimeter fence of wonky wooden posts and chicken wire sits the infamous ‘Hardy Tree’. Immortalised across grave-happy corners of the internet as one of the capital’s most unusual cemetery features, in reality the Hardy Tree cuts a rather more modest figure.
The Hardy Tree is an oddity of sorts, frequently referenced outside the context of the burial ground. The tree itself is a centuries-old ash tree, surrounded by a radiating circle of densely-packed headstones, crammed together after their removal from the pre-existing burial ground. It’s a striking and unique feature, but would never have happened, were it not for railway expansions and a quick-thinking young man named Thomas Hardy.
By the mid-19th century, Britain’s railways were expanding at a frantic rate, to join cities, industries and the fast-growing tourist trade. As such, large swathes of London had to be cleaved in two to accommodate new tracks, stations and the work force that would make such developments possible. Much like the controversial HS2 development, joining London directly with the West Midlands, burial grounds were no match for the jackboots of progress, and bodies, headstones and memorials were removed to make way. Railway lines still rumble behind St Pancras church and burial ground today, ferrying commuters across the city.
In the 1860s, railway expansions were to directly affect the ancient burial ground at St Pancras and an architectural firm was hired to disinter bodies and prepare the graveyard for development. The bodies were duly removed from their resting places and re-interred elsewhere, but the small task of how to repurpose the headstones was handed down to the youngest and least-qualified employee of the firm, a young Thomas Hardy. This would be the same Thomas Hardy who would gain fame and success in the coming years as the writer of such classics as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Hardy ingeniously solved the issue of lingering headstones by stacking them around a tree, like dominoes, making them a novel feature for the remaining smaller ground, rather than sealing their fate as builders’ rubble or paving slabs, as so many other sites resorted.
Today, presumably due to the structural integrity and health of the tree’s roots, the Hardy Tree has been fenced off twice, and further obscured by hedging, making the experience of visiting the famous site a little underwhelming; a real ‘squint and you’ll see the stones’ moment. However, the beauty and enduring fascination of the tree is still tangible; it has absorbed some stones over the years, claiming and pinning long-forgotten names to its trunk. For all of the protective methods employed today, the poetic beauty of the tree still shines through.
In 2019, news articles appeared citing that a ‘suspicious fungus’ had been found on the tree, threatening its wellbeing. Should the fungus be identified as ‘ash dieback’, a disease that has toppled so many of the nation’s ash trees, particularly in the south-east, then Hardy’s own arboreal memorial may have reached the end of the line. From the ash tree to the gravestones it absorbs, nothing in London is permanent, not even the dead.
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