And drinks to eat
In The Heart of Darkness, Conrad wrote, ‘The old river on its broad reach unrolled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that people its bank, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth’.
With 32 bridges between Tower Bridge and Hampton Court, there are still reaches beside the Thames that are quite and tranquil and where you may hear a bell or a the water lapping at the edge.
And sometimes the water is hidden.
St. Pancras Old Church
Framing the stone that is the church, some tall trees, even taller than the church. This is a little church situated in a green oasis in central London.
A bike by a bench
An empty bench
Two people on a bench.
Two people, seated here, outside a church, talking to one another. One was the church’s ‘father’, identified by his dog collar. He was chatting it seems about some important church business to a woman with a lap top – the insignia of her existence. They were unaware of me entering within.
Beside the trees, in the large graveyard is the burial site of the legendary eighteenth-century architect, Sir John Soane, a little architectural wonder. I suspect the church is more famous as his burial ground, than as a church to visit.
But what of the church? Delicate and small and with an entrance portal of faux dentilled Romanesque decoration. It looks like a mini version of the façade of Notre Dame in Paris with a perfectly placed rose window above the door. Rugged stone, rough and rugged like Roman stone. Suitable for its origination – early in date and perhaps even one of the earliest Christian sites in London.
And with the grey some green. There are plants to the left, plants to the right and a welcoming sign saying that the church is open. The clock above said 9.55 am. Instead of heading south, as I normally do when I get to St. Pancras, I walked north, without checking first that the church would be open at this time.
But it was.
White and light in the vestibule.
Light cupboards, Tupperware boxes and two small lamps burning bright. A laminated sign with the world ‘toilet’ on it on one of the two fridges flanking the wall of the vestibule. On the other cupboard on top, a large box for coloured wooden bricks. No doubt this is the useful toy box for parishioners’ children.
The bells start to peal. I see an incense censer, but the church feels odourless and even a little cold on this July morning.
I visit the church during the political dramas unfolding in Westminster. I visit the church the day before our new prime minister is elected.
She is hailed and heralded not using the now rather predictable gender-gaining language, but as somebody who is steadfast, strong and Anglican. Much is being made of the fact that she is the daughter of a vicar. And elected in July, so nearly, but not quite a May queen.
So will our new ‘Anglican’ prime minister reform? She has already said that she is keen to reform our increasing disparity between rich and poor. In her formal opening speech as prime minister she claims she is going to make Britain a better place for all. But as an Anglican will she reform churches once more? Will she want one unified church? Will she gain congregations and miracle workers? To my surprise, I stumbled upon what I thought was a Catholic church – here at the Old church of St. Pancras. The tell-tale signs were there: the name ‘Father’ on the notice board for the priest in charge, the little statuettes and figurines on a shelf on a wall, highlighted by a flickering candle in a red container, the incense, the unusual presence of painted wooden altarpieces. And yet it isn’t actually Catholic. But the leaflet I picked up announces that Confession can be made by appointment. I have never come across this mixing of Catholic and Anglican practices in such an obvious way.
But how appropriate all of this ornamentation seems to be. Any church that is dedicated to a saint or even the Virgin Mary would have had its fair share of Catholic accessorising before the Protestant take-over. So although the churches that have become Anglican or Protestant have been largely stripped bare of the existing Catholic décor, their dedicatee saints remain. But it is still surprising to come upon a quasi Catholic church that does not look as though it is late nineteenth-century or early twentieth century when there was a movement to bring back the look, if not the liturgy of a Catholic church., which also resulted in the building of new churches for the Catholic church at this time. The wonderful church, the parish church of S. Cyprian, Clarence Gate, north of Baker Street designed by Ninian Comper (1864-196 is a good example of this – and representative of the Oxford Movement, a reviving neo-Gothic style of architecture, promulgated by the Great high Victorian architect – Pugin, who I have already written about in another post. But who has ever heard of Comper? There will be more on him in another post. As a hint, one of the reasons why he is not better known is because Pevsner dismissed him all over the land, in every county, at every church he designed. And we all know how powerful words can be. Pevsner’s are potent too with his dismissive, critical, super analytical eye and pen.
I read in the church booklet that this church was one of the favourites of Elizabeth I and that she continued to allow Latin mass there, after the Reformation. And as I sensed during my visit, the church seems to maintain its Catholic legacy even to this day.
And although old St. Pancras is not really an old church as it appears in its present state today; it is interesting to see a grey stone monument dated to 1530 and thus just before c. 1531 when changes were afoot in the English church. But what a curious monument it is. To be blunt, it is like the demolished side of a wall, left to rot in a reclamation yard. One can just make out the indented slabs which were the backs of brasses – of a woman, her two husbands and their children. But now the monument, like an un-plastered wall lays battered, blasted and is a monument to destruction, rather than resolution or monumental resolve. And with its timely dating, it could also stand for much stonework of the 1530s that was axed, hit and destroyed by marauding reformers.
I take some photos of a silent church now that the bells have stopped pealing. I hear the voices of the two outside talking and am amused that church matters are being conducted in the sun and outside the church. The new outdoor/indoor living as we see in modern homes, where the garden creeps in and the kitchen creeps out.
Outside there is another sound. And that is the trains creaking, as if their wheels are being oiled and tested in a train goods’ yard nearby. As I walk around the graveyard, I spot a beautiful wild flower garden beside a Victorian brick building – with the sign Coroner’s Court on it. And right beside, a very modern cutting edge sign on top of an equally modern glass doorway heralding the entrance to the St. Pancras mortuary. Seeing a mortuary in really quite a conspicuous place was a first for me. I do not make a habit of loitering around entrances to mortuaries. But this one that must have recently been erected (I presume on account of its ultra- modern appearance) is a design feat worthy of the dead. Moreover, worthy even of a call for the resurrection of Eric Gill to come and award a prize. Letters are individually placed above the door, on spikes, reminiscent of the spiked heads of criminals placed on public medieval buildings. No connection intended I am sure.
This church as I say, is not well-known as far as I know today and not that well visited. But perhaps its slight secrecy is in keeping with its past history. It was where you went for a hasty wedding, as we know for example that Mary Wollstonecraft, who, pregnant (with Mary Shelley), by William Godwin was married here in 1797, only to be buried in the churchyard by the end of the year.
But what is striking is that although this is a large churchyard, in the nineteenth century, the churchyard was deemed to be too crowded. Charles Dickens visited, using it as a location for the envisioning of narratives about body snatching and many bodies were removed to build the train station (the train’s sounds grind through the otherwise silent churchyard as I noted above). And Thomas Hardy in his capacity as amateur architect used a tree to make an artwork out of abandoned grave stones alongside the roots of a reasonably large tree.
But the crowning glory of the ‘highlight’ graves must be the large and mighty monument for Sir John Soane, the legendary eighteenth-century architect of Bank of England fame. This monument is a grade 1 listed monument. If you have not been, do go and visit his house, which in his will, he expressly ordered to be left just as it is as a museum. What is poignant about his tomb monument is that his wife and one of his sons son before him and as this was to be a family burial monument, he continued to work on the design for a while beyond their deaths. The actual monument was eventually carried out by Gilbert Scott. It is a little half cupola topped arcade with simple pillars and columns and within an inscription slab set in a pedimented niche. True to all of what he had advocated and believed in throughout his career as an architect; that is the classical language of architecture. So into eternity he went with the classical model to his posterity as well.
And finally, I enclose here with other images, a colourful mosaic design on the tall obelisk like structure acting as a sundial. This is dedicated to Baroness Burdett Coutts (as in the bankers) and she designed a model estate and the design of this sundial was hers. I was going to take more as I like colour. However, life goes on. The taking of photos at this point was interrupted by a call from a mortgage broker. Even in the silence, life goes on.
If you have the will to visit this church and its yard, you will be surprised at its green and verdant land. And you may not be surprised to hear that the river Fleet is still flowing underneath.
The church of St. Pancras, Euston Road
4 caryatids still and serene, but they are dirty and unloved. Standing tall on the north side of the church of St. Pancras. On the south side of the ribbon road that is Marylebone Road, the major through road from west to east in London. It is not really the ‘new’ church for ‘old St. Pancras, as like so many churches old St. Pancras’s design is more new than old.
But back to those standing tall statues, which would do well as custodians of travellers in and out of the statin, which is also part old, part new and a fusing of both. St. Pancras may even be the only church in London that has caryatids on it. Indeed the edifice looks like a temple, but a very grimy temple. It is in fact an architectural design by William and Henry William Inwood, based on the Ionic temple of Erectheum in Athens. This is a statement from eighteenth-century London saying that it is fine and dandy to commemorate pagan living on Christian edifices. The beauty and majesty of architecture emanating from a pagan religion can work well for the glory and majesty of a Christian one. But the Gods are not there now. There is a crypt, which the caryatids are supporting underneath, show-casing ultra-modern installation art (and thoroughly recommended). So the muses are there. But then so are the cars. And lots and lots of them grinding by as they stop at traffic lights are very frequent intervals. The caryatids have fluted drapes about them and hold vessels of oil, as if poised to pour oil or water on the passing cars. But although they could give the church prominence, they are wasted where they are on this busy, throbbing, never-ceasing highway.
The west end of the church is thus not on the main road – but on a road going south, but still busy. People are going about their normal business and have no time to stand and stare at all of this classical architecture lacing this space. There is a delightful twin tower structure complete with ionic capitals and 6 fluted columns at the west end. The church was begun in 1819.
So why are two churches reasonably close to one another with St. Pancras as the dedicatee saint? St. Pancratius was martyred and beheaded in 304, as a mere boy by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. And as a mere boy, he became the patron saint of children. Left an orphan by deceased parents, he was brought up by his uncle, but was ordered to worship Roman gods. As a result of his refusal, as is the case with all early Christian fighters for the new cause, he was sentenced to death. It is believed that when St. Augustine was sent over to England from Rome to evangelise those ‘angles’ who Gregory had seen in the Rome market believing they were ‘angels’, St. Augustine had some St. Pancras relics in his travelling satchel.
Well both churches have water in common, because they were rebuilt, but also because an older church on this site had been built over-looking the river Fleet, where a Roman encampment had been.
And so as I always do, I look up and around and then go inside.
And there, more silence and more nobody. Soon after, one woman walked in and sat near the front looking at the altar. This is a very large church and I stood at the back imagining what it would be like if it was filled up.
I looked at some wonderful examples of stained glass, many of the windows being dedicated to women. I remembered the stunning wood engraving of Claire Leighton, a 20th -century artist, the sister of Roland Leighton who was having a relationship with Vera Brittain as in his sister’s account – Testament of Youth before he was killed in action in the first World War. If you like Alicia Vikander, you will know what I am talking about. Claire Leighton went to live in the southern part of the USA and despite having worked on a tiny scale on a woodblock was commissioned, even without any experience to stain some windows for the cathedral of St. Paul, Worcester, MA. So the artist who had worked in black and white on a tiny scale could adapt her working style to work on a large scale and in colour. Leighton, wood engraving.
And if it is art you crave, but also cool (in both sense of the word), then the crypt at St. Pancras is the place to be. Down below, are cool, dirty, dark corridors. Sometimes you stumble across an abandoned head-stone or grave slab, sometimes some sort of installation or at least you are not sure, as the installations might also be bits and pieces from the church vestry or cleaning cupboard – pots and pans, brooms, glass jars etc. However, on a regular basis, the crypt serves as a gallery space for budding painters and artists and provides them with a wonderful place to show their art, not just on the walls, but in the nooks, crevices and crannies of this hidden church space. Modern art embedded and exposed in hidden stone. Inside out and outside in. Architecture is sheltering cutting edge art and offering it more ways to see it, other than how it was first conceived in studio or loft or kitchen.