The Hardy Tree / A Satire Of Circumstance
Kentish Town Man Found Hanged In Cupboard was the sign on the news board as I stepped out and down along the High Street yesterday in the direction of the British Library at St Pancras. This did nothing to lift my fragile mood, which I was trying to exercise-away in the last of the sunshine and - as it turned out - the calm before the storm (I mean that quite literally. You'll not find any literary tropes here: cartoon lightning with parma-violet afterglow and thunder like shell-bursts ... but I'm racing ahead of myself...).
Behind Sainsbury's I join the Regent's Canal. An awfully grand title for what (at least as it appeared to me in my hump, yesterday) is a litter-strewn cut. A yellow plastic duck (bath size) was being stubbornly ignored by a couple of battery moorhens. Two odd patches of depressed and isolated bluebells among the thriving nettles: bindweed threading itself happily around abandoned cartons and unloved plastic. Three fishermen with empty nets and the usual assortment of joggers and pedalofiles, druggers and strangers to modern dentistry. Puddles under every bridge appeared to me a sure sign of impending doom. Leaving the cut I noted the dusty bank of brambles opposite Camden Coroner's Court. I've never been tempted to pick any here because - I rationalise - they're all coated with diesel dust from the Midland Mainline... or maybe it's because each black fruit is a memento-mori of a broken dream and brief life in the suicide capital of Great Britain.
Cutting through St Pancras* churchyard I stop to photo The Hardy Tree: Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) studied architecture in London from 1862 to 1867, and whilst here supervised groundwork in St Pancras cemetery during the building of the Midland Railway through part of the original churchyard. The sign says Hardy would have spent much time here "overseeing the careful removal of bodies and tombs". Well, yes: perhaps, but a poem from his collection Satires Of Circumstance published on the eve of WWI suggests Hardy was less sentimental and perhaps secretly rather enjoyed turning a nice Christian burial ground into something resembling the inside of a Wessex Long Barrow:
"You see those mothers squabbling there?"
"And then the main drain had to cross,
Honestly. Thomas Hardy would turn in his grave. Wouldn't he?
*This was Kentish Town's ancestral parish church before the town migrated up the Fleet River to less marginal land in the 15th century leaving the church to fend for itself.
Pancras-church standeth all alone, as utterly forsaken, old and weather-beaten, which, for the antiquitie thereof, it is thought not to yeeld to Paules in London. About this church have many buildings now decayed, leaving poor Pancras without companie or comfort, yet it is now and then visited with Kentishtowne and Highgate, which are members thereof; but they seldome come there, for they have chapels of ease within themselves; but when there is a corpse to be interred, they are forced to leave the same within this forsaken church or church-yard, where (no doubt) it resteth as secure against the day of resurrection as if it lay in stately Paules.
(Norden, late 16th century, quoted in Gillian Tindall: The Fields Beneath,1977, Phoenix Press).
St Pancras was killed, age 14, during the Diocletian persecution in Rome in 304AD and is one of the patron saints of children. Interestingly, the foundations of the church contain fragments of Roman brick and tile possibly re-used from earlier buildings on the same site, raising the possibility that the Fleet-side church may have been the site of an earlier pre-Christian temple (Gillian Tindall: op cit).
Snakes and Ladders and a vanishing world
to Finchley (via 134 bus to Tally Ho Corner). From High Road head
westward and downward past The Court House, a faux-Tudor suburban actuary's
six-bedroom dream, built on the site of an older building of the same
name where my great aunt*, Cousin Addie, (*I use this word loosely) ran
a school for young ladies at the beginning of the last century. She is
listed in Kelly's London Suburban Directory for 1902 as "Simple (sic)
Miss (Court House)". Next door a large cedar tree surrounded by low-rise
flats looks like the only survivor of the march of bricks and mortar which
turned this old "almost in the country" pile into a regular
London suburb a century ago, a process accelerated by the arrival of the
Northern Line in 1940. Another "great aunt", Barbara, recalled
in her memoirs summer walking excursions from here to Mill Hill, and it
is these footsteps that I followed last Sunday down Nether Street, imagining
the fields skirting the old garden with its two lawns, "stately old
cedar tree", lime trees and apple orchard.
Then I found hardly any flowers except for a clump of green
alkanet which I concluded was "Perhaps not a cure for melancholy
but enough - maybe - to banish the winter blues. For a while..."
Well a. I was too early and b. I was looking in the wrong place. The Folly Brook has enough flora to banish the winter blues for good. Great swathes of bluebells (some kind of Spanish/native hybrid, I think, with rather more of the Spanish genes), a few bunches of ramsons (though none flowering): I munched a few leaves on the hoof - very peppery with big garlic low notes, wood anemones, celandine, dog's mercury and rhododendron. But, best of all: a shedload of snake's-head fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris - all growing very unkempt and "wild", though spread probably from stock originally planted when the area was laid out as a garden - complete with ornamental lake - by Humphrey Repton in the eighteenth century.
The whole a very lovely surprise. Naturally I didn't have my camera with me. And anyway it was raining.
17 Jan 1856 - Captain
James Goffey, my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather, master of the Tapley,
buried at Snake Island, West Africa, after having died of exhaustion "the
result of long and continued intemperance".
The Hardy Tree
St Pancras Church
7 Apr 04
Further into Kent and the southern edge of the Greensand Ridge near Sevenoaks."Semi-natural woodland" with high wow-content for florafiles including early purple orchids (not out yet) and multitudinous bluebells (a few out), ramsons (ditto). In flower: coltsfoot, cuckoo flower, more wood anemones, celandine, dog-violets, hellebore (to purge the veins/ Of melancholy,and cheer the heart) (at least, according to Robert Burton), speedwell, green alkanet, wild strawberries and lovely, if not uncommon, dandylions.
A scratch 'n' sniff carpet
Of silent salad.
|Shady is busy with his books, buried deep in the arcana of London's regimental history, and offers two whole week's worth of his wisdom in condensed form this week.He exhorts his visitors to leave the mouse and follow Basho's teaching: "Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine" or "...off, and leave me in peace".|
© Richard Shepherd, 2004