Friday, 13 January 2023

The death of the Hardy tree in St Pancras Old Churchyard


Over Christmas the Hardy Tree in St Pancras Old Churchyard finally succumbed to blight and collapsed. No one was there to witness the trees last moment though reddit user Srinjoy Dey, who was the first to photograph the toppled ash on Boxing Day, says that he heard a loud bang just as he was going into the churchyard. The trunk had been snapped off at the point where it emerges from the encircling headstones.  I was last in the churchyard on 12th December when I was taking photos in the snow, including a few of the tree. On my first day back at work after the holidays I stopped off on the way into the office to see the damage for myself. I expected the fallen tree to have already been removed by Camden Council and to find myself contemplating its absence but it was still there, resting where it had collapsed, like a felled giant. As a concession to health and safety the council had surrounded it with a security fence, forcing me to risk losing my phone to take photos as I had to poke it between the wires to get a clear view. The fence also stopped me from acquiring a twig or a piece of bark as a souvenir, as I had planned. I have always been fond of the tree, and I’ve written about it several times, including a debunking of the myth that it had anything to do with Thomas Hardy. Looking at its mortal remains I felt slightly guilty, as if, in the days before they died, I had challenged the accuracy of the tall tales told by an elderly relative.

It was an anonymous commenter on one of my posts that tipped me off to the tree’s demise a couple of days after it had happened. By then the event had been reported on the BBC website and in the Camden New Journal, the Standard, the Guardian and in various other newspapers nationally and internationally, including the New York Times. Most of that initial coverage reiterated the story that it was Thomas Hardy himself that had arranged the headstones around the tree but by the time The Guardian followed up its initial coverage with an editorial published on 29 December entitled The Guardian view on the death of the Hardy Tree; a legend uprooted, the connection with Hardy was being called into question;  

The toppling of a tree, without injury, in a city churchyard would not normally make news headlines, but the mighty ash outside London’s Old St Pancras church was one of the capital’s most venerated natural landmarks and a destination of literary pilgrimage. Encircled with gravestones that it seemed to be absorbing into its root system, the Hardy Tree acquired its name, and its celebrity, from a story that the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, then a young architect’s apprentice in a rapidly growing London, was personally responsible for stacking its trunk with stones cleared to make way for the expansion of the Midland railway line in the mid-1860s.

…Hardy himself wrote of overseeing the exhumations. He was charged with turning up at unexpected times to ensure that the clerk of works was doing a respectful job and not simply dumping the bones, as had happened in previous cemetery clearances.

What is missing is any evidence that Hardy had any direct involvement in the arrangement of the stones. Moreover, photographs of the churchyard, unearthed by an assiduous amateur historian, suggest that the current ash grew between 1926 and 1960, only later becoming known as the Hardy Tree. That it had no greater verifiable connection with the Victorian author than, say, Sherwood Forest’s Major Oak had with Robin Hood, or Berkshire’s Ankerwycke Yew had with the signing of the Magna Carta, hardly matters. By mere dint of their longevity, trees collect myths and become lightning rods for the historical imagination.

There was a link to the work of the ‘assiduous amateur historian’, who I was pleasantly surprised to find out, was me. I wasn’t named but being tagged and linked by a broadsheet are enough kudos for me. Guardian readers are a literate bunch; the last contribution to the comments section before it was closed is a poem called Ashes to Ashes by Lepidus77;  

An assiduous amateur historian
questions the provenance
of the Hardy Ash, that crashed
in Old St. Pancras churchyard
late in twenty twenty-two.

Ashes are the opportunists
of the arboreal world,
good for a few hundred years
with luck, becoming
lightning rods for the historical imagination.

Legend has it Hardy helped
stack the stones to
stay the mighty ash
where the Shelleys had tiptoed
permissively, and later
Mary Wollstonecraft would lie.

We need that tree to have
predated Hardy, ideally
witnessing the sunlit
Shelley trysts, providing
shade for Mary’s long lying in.

A post-war chancer ash, toppling
after sixty odd years,
barely mocks our own
three score plus stint. We need
the ash to bookend us,
implying that life going on.

At least one commenter, who calls himself Alabasterhand, took umbrage with the Guardian questioning the authenticity of the connection between the tree and Thomas Hardy; “There is something positively malignant in the way that this newspaper seems grimly determined to sweep away what it seemingly regards as dangerous myths like the age of the Hardy tree.... If the Editorial team on The Guardian feels it has nothing better to do than to crush and stamp out charming, harmless consolatory legends then I would suggest it is high time they pack it in altogether.” Several other commenters pointed out that you can hardly complain about someone doubting the truth of something you call a ‘charming harmless consolatory legend’ as legends are, by definition, not true.

Another commenter, stpman, had additional interesting details to add about the history of the tree; “About 20 years ago I suspected that the tree was rather less than 100 years old and did some research at the Camden Local Studies Library in Theobald's Road, Holborn... In the late 1970s the graveyard needed repair work to the paths, railings and stonework. The gravestones were again tidied - and placed rather more neatly around the tree that had grown alongside from about the 1920s. I was told by the library staff that a St. Pancras church cleric began referring to it as "The Hardy Tree" at that time, and this is probably how the myth was born.”  Alabasterhand was quick to jump in again; “Hardy's activity at Old St Pancras is most certainly not a "myth" but a well documented fact, working under the supervision of the architect Arthur Bloomfield. I can moreover confirm that the circle of overlapping gravestones was attributed to Hardy to my clear memory in the mid 1960's. Why would anyone make up such a story? More importantly, why are people so keen to rush in to call the story into question? What horrible, joyless times we live in.”  Quite why anyone would take a correction to the factual record so hard is a mystery to me.

The Guardian finished its editorial with the following reflection;

The demise of an old tree is always sad. But perhaps the real story of the Hardy ash is that it wasn’t special; it didn’t witness the canoodlings of the Shelleys, fall in a freak storm or die in a scary, imported pandemic. The entanglement of root and stone reveals a history of nature and humanity competing and coexisting in a swiftly changing industrial landscape. In death, it has grown into its own urban myth.

The Hardy Tree when it was still hale and hearty

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