Located in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, the Hardy Tree takes its name from its association with novelist Thomas Hardy.
Before Hardy found fame as the author of such novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far from the Madding Crowd, in the 1860s he worked as an assistant to a West End-based architect, Arthur Blomfield.
Blomfield’s firm, in order to make way for a new line for the Midland Railway, was commissioned by the Bishop of London to exhume bodies from their graves in the churchyard and relocate them.
Hardy was given the job of supervising the removal of the corpses – apparently among those exhumed was a coffin containing a man with two heads!
It’s said that after he had removed the bodies, Hardy had to decide what to do with the headstones which remained and came up with the idea of placing them in a rather lovely fanned collar around an ash tree growing in a part of the churchyard unaffected by the railway line.
Whether Hardy was actually responsible for the placement of the gravestones remains somewhat uncertain (although it’s a nice story). But his work in the graveyard is believed to have at least partly inspired his poem, The Levelled Churchyard.
The moss-covered gravestones and tree have since merged and now make a fascinating monument to the churchyard’s past life, attracting Hardy pilgrims from across the world. And, of course, the churchyard is also famous as the site where Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, planned her elopement with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while she was visiting the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft not to mention Charles Dickens’ famous reference to it in A Tale of Two Cities and its association with so-called ‘resurrection men’ or ‘bodysnatchers’ in the 19th century.