Only a ten minute walk from the hoards of commuters and tourists at St. Pancras Station lies a small church that seems out of place in the hectic surroundings of central London. The sounds of construction workers building high-rise apartments and fixing pot-holed streets, trains whizzing by noisily on the tracks above, this is hardly the kind of place you would expect to find a such a fascinating relic of London’s past.
Yet, there it stands. A miracle made possible only by the relentless activism of church leaders and history lovers in the community through the years. St Pancras Old Church is one of the oldest places of Christian worship in England, dating back to a time when London had not yet spread so far North; a rural oasis until modernization took over in the 19th century. Many believe that the church could date back to as far as 314 AD, and there are several references to the parish in the Domesday Book.
Walking through the gilded wrought iron gate, the surrounding noise doesn’t exactly fade away, but you quickly forget about it all the same. This little church has ties to hundreds of famous writers, philanthropists, musicians, and London giants. Their remnants are scattered throughout, although most are easily missed- so do pick up a map inside. (You should leave a donation!)
As you enter the interior of St Pancras Old Church, you won’t be blown away by high-vaulted ceilings and murals done by internationally renown artists, but you will have the opportunity to walk along a floor that that has seen 1700 years of change. This is not to say it isn’t beautiful, for a church that has overcome bombings during World War II, several railroad constructions, and restoration after restoration, the simplicity suits it well.
The churchyard is one of the biggest reasons visitors come to wander the grounds of St Pancras Old Church. It was the site of the body-snatchers in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, a popular practice at the time to provide corpses for medical schools. Composer Johann Christian Bach is buried on the grounds, as is William Franklin a illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin and the last colonial Governor of New Jersey.
The stories and tales that have involved St Pancras Old Church are many, and make walking through the tombstones and greenery a bit of an adventure through time with some very famous and interesting characters.
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and an avid travel writer, once secretly met famous poet Percy Shelley at the grave site of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft. There they planned their elopement, and probably read really sappy love poems to each other. (Not a fan of Percy myself…) Mary’s memorial tomb may still be visited, although her actual remains have been removed.
Another great story lies at the mausoleum of architect Sir John Sloane. Sloane is known best for his work on the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. As he didn’t want to be laid to rest under just any boring tomb, he designed the mausoleum that you can see today, for both his wife and himself. The mausoleum is beautiful and Grade I listed, but perhaps the real story is what was inspired because of it. A man by the name of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott used the mausoleum as a starting place for his design of one of England’s most iconic symbols- the red telephone box.
The most fascinating piece in the graveyard owes it’s hauntingly beautiful set-up to none other than author Thomas Hardy. He helped with excavation of the graveyard during the 1860’s, before he had turned to writing full-time. Deemed The Hardy Tree, tombstones that had been moved during the excavation were compactly placed in a circle around the growing tree. Since then, the tree has grown between them, creating something magical in the process.
One lone park bench on the far-side of the grounds opposite the church, tells it’s own story. On July 28, 1968 John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison sat together for a photo-op during their ‘Mad Day Out’. They took many of their most famous photos that day at St Pancras Old Church, making it a frequent stop for Beatles tours around London.
This is only a small selection of the reach this small ancient church has had on both history and popular culture. The next time you are catching a train at St.Pancras or King’s Cross station, take a moment to walk down the street and visit the unassuming St Pancras Old Church. You could easily pass it by, but once on the grounds you will be swept away with it’s captivating tales, marvelous monuments, and a tree of life that has been encapsulated in death.
St Pancras Old Church is located in the Camden area at 191 Pancras Road, NW1 1UL.
There are also frequent music gigs at this intimate venue that would be well-worth checking out.