Friday 20 April 2012

This is London

Just spent a couple of wonderful days in London. I was originally planning a walk along the course of the lost Fleet River (following the directions in Tom Bolton's excellent book London's Lost Rivers) but ended up getting distracted at Kings Cross,  firstly by the construction of a new city quarter on the railway and canal lands behind the station, and secondly by developments at the station itself, with significant progress made on restoring the train shed roof and the newly opened Western Concourse.

To the north of the station, work is well underway on the new city quarter and it is shaping up to be a beautiful area of London. There is a real sense of place and history in the plans and it appears that every effort is being made to create a balanced community with mixed use of the available space (eg education, arts, retail, business, transport, government, leisure). The University of the Arts has already opened and has made use of a range of Victorian granary storage buildings. It looks sensational. A new square is being built in front of the University which leads down to the Regent's Canal. The Canal itself is well used for leisure purposes, although it still has an air of the edgelands about it. However, work is planned to improve the towpath and this should create a lovely walking route up to Camden Lock (just a mile away).

We walked part of the way towards Camden along the towpath and then looped back towards St Pancras station. We climbed a short flight of steps and found ourselves in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, which has been a place of worship for over 1500 years (although most of the current church building itself is Victorian).

In the churchyard, my eyes were drawn to a cluster of disused headstones, heaped up alongside an ash tree. The roots of the tree had grown over some of the headstones and the tree seemed to be trying to lay claim to them.
Photograph by Jacqueline Banerjee
There was an information board in front of the tree which stated:

"before turning to writing full time, Thomas Hardy studied architecture in London from 1862-67 under Mr. Arthur Blomfield, an architect based in Covent Garden. During the 1860s the Midland Railway line was being built over part of the original St. Pancras Churchyard. Blomfield was commissioned by the Bishop of London to supervise the proper exhumation of human remains and dismantling of tombs. He passed this unenviable task to his protegĂ© Thomas Hardy in. c.l865. Hardy would have spent many hours in St. Pancras Churchyard . . . overseeing the careful removal of bodies and tombs from the land on which the railway was being built. The headstones around this ashtree (Fraxinus excelsior) would have been placed here about that time. Note how the tree has since grown in amongst the stones" (source: The Victorian Web).

So, here in the corner of a London churchyard, we found an extraordinary historical site which linked back to one of the great men of our Wessex homelands. And this is what I love about London, and why it calls me. There is so much history in the stones and in the land and so any walk through the city is rich with interest as there is a story on every street.

We stopped for a quick pint at the Betjeman Arms at St Pancras Station and spent some time admiring Barlow's train shed (surely one of the most beautiful buildings in England.) It is difficult now to believe that St Pancras had once been scheduled for demolition. In the 1960's it had come under the baleful gaze (like some Wellsian Martian death-ray) of planners, who were fresh from destroying Euston station just along the road. Thankfully, protests (led by Sir John Betjeman) caused there to be a rethink and the station was saved and subsequently restored (Martin Jennings' statue of Betjeman at St Pancras is a must-see).

We finally made our way back to the starting point of our walk, Kings Cross station. Once the roof of the train shed is fully restored and the appalling existing concourse removed, opening up for the first time in half-a-century the glorious Victorian frontage of the train shed, Kings Cross Station will become (like St Pancras next door) the sort of place you go to not just because you're going somewhere else. It will be another destination in itself in a city which is full of them.

1 comment:

Jae said...

I visited England a few years ago... and fell in Love with it!!! Oh how I miss it!