It’s hard to find a quiet corner in the heart of London away from the crowds, but it’s not impossible if you know where to look.
One of my favourite tranquil spots is within easy walking distance of two of the capital’s busiest railway hubs.
St Pancras Old Church is spitting distance from King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, but you’d be forgiven for missing it because it’s tucked away in a quiet corner behind these massive transport complexes.
I discovered the church when I took a wander around the streets to the rear of St Pancras. It’s a good way to kill 30 minutes if you’re early for your train.
Walking through the church gates at St Pancras Old Church, you feel that you’ve arrived somewhere a little bit special. The church looks ancient with its rugged stone walls, although it dates mostly from the mid 19th Century.
It’s thought that a church was built here as early as the 4th Century, making St Pancras one of the oldest Christian sites in Europe.
I was surprised to learn that historians think there might have been a Roman encampment here in the early days of Londinium. The church may have been the site of a rural shrine, which was later converted to Christian use.
Today there are still signs of its Roman past. Look carefully and you’ll see recycled Roman tiles in the church’s exposed medieval wall although nobody knows exactly where these came from.
The current church was built in the 11th-12th Century. It’s named after St Pancras, a Roman teenager who was a convert to Christianity. His story is gruesome but intriguing.
Pancras was sentenced to death after being commanded by the Emperor Diocletian to worship Roman gods. After refusing to denounce Christianity, he was beheaded in Rome in 304.
St Pancras’ body and head were placed in the Catacombs and the Basilica of Saint Pancras in Rome. He was later canonised and veneration of the saint spread quickly after his death.
St Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory to England in 595 with relics of St Pancras – and established churches in London and Canterbury. This is probably how the church got its name.
Discovering the Ancient Church
St Pancras Old Church once sat on the banks of the River Fleet and was part of a small rural community. It’s hard to believe it but this was once a quiet backwater lying outside of London’s boundaries.
It’s difficult to visualise the church’s riverside setting on a small hillock overlooking the River Fleet but an old engraving gives us a few clues (see above). The river was culverted over in the late 19th Century so there is little obvious sign of it today so you have to use your imagination.
From the 13th Century onwards, the church fell increasingly into disrepair and was left virtually in ruins due to the diminishing local population and its isolated location.
In 1593, John Norden, a topographer, described St Pancras Church as standing “all alone, as utterly forsaken, old and weather-beaten… with many buildings now decayed”.
Photos of St Pancras in The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, Barcelona and Rome
On several occasions the vicar and parishioners were forced to abandon their worship to escape the “foul’d ways and great waters” of the Fleet.
The church was used as a barracks during the English Civil War when it was in decline. Parliament ordered the “deserted Church of St Pancras to be disposed unto lodging for 50 troupers”.
Several years ago, workmen excavating in the old foundations of the church discovered a treasure trove of finds including an Elizabethan silver chalice which had been hidden since the Civil War.
If it hadn’t been for the industrial revolution and expansion of London, St Pancras church might have been lost forever. But the boom in London’s population and the building of the railways resulted in the church getting a reprieve.
St Pancras was restored in the mid 1800s and we have to thank the Victorians for saving it.
Today St Pancras could still be mistaken for a country church if it weren’t for the background hum of traffic and the rattling of passing trains!
Walking through the churchyard is a fascinating experience and it’s fun to see how many famous graves you can spot.
There were 100,000 burials here before 1850 including the ‘great and the good” – aristocrats, politicians, writers and artists. They included Johann Christian Bach (composer son of Johann Sebastian Bach), William Franklin (politician), William Godwin (philosopher), John Polidori (writer) and Sir John Soane.
John Soane’s family tomb is one of the grandest of the church’s graves with a marble mausoleum designed in classical style. It dates from1837 and is notable for being one of only two Grade I listed burial monuments in London.
The most striking memorial is a spire like structure dedicated to the philanthropist Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts, one of the richest women in England.
It’s surrounded by railings and a cascade of flowers, and there’s even a statue of her pet dog watching over it. Today it provides a colourful contrast to the more sombre gravestones.
Chevalier d’Eon is another intriguing character buried in the churchyard. He was a French spy, diplomat and soldier who spent time spying in London in the late 1700s.
He was renowned for his androgynous physical characteristics. Chevalier was a cross-dresser who was able to present as both a man and woman.
Speculation and gossip about his gender was so strong that London bookmakers took bets on whether he was a man or woman. There’s an interesting collection about him in the British Museum, if you want to find out more about his incredible story.
Burials, Bones and Body Snatching
St Pancras Old Churchyard has an intriguing and grisly history. During the 1800s there were mass burials following typhoid, cholera and smallpox epidemics in London. These put increasing pressure on the churchyard for space which led to complaints from local residents.
More than 25 corpses… have been deposited every week for the last 20 years in an already overcrowded space… teeth, bones, fragments of coffin wood are seen lying in large quantities around these pits.Letter to The Times from. a local resident, 1850
Charles Dickens, who lived nearby, often visited the churchyard. It inspired him to create a body-snatcher character called Jerry Cruncher in his novel “A Tale of Two Cities”.
Cruncher tries to defend his tomb raiding, describing himself as “a ‘resurrectionist”, doing “a noble service for the medical profession”.
It’s unclear how much body snatching went on at St Pancras Church, but corpses for dissection were needed at medical schools, a common practice, until body snatching was banned.
In the 1860s, more than 10,000 graves were excavated to make way for the London train terminus at St Pancras station. It was a controversial project which angered some of the general public.
Thomas Hardy (later to become a famous writer) was employed by the architect Arthur Blomfield to manage the disinterment of human remains and grave excavation.
The famous “Hardy Tree” reveals the extent of his work in relocating the old graves. Hardy spent many hours in the churchyard supervising the relocation of the headstones, some of which can be seen under an ash tree.
St Pancras Old Church also developed a reputation for “quickie weddings”in the 1700s and early 1800s, presumably because it was a hidden backwater.
The writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin got married here in 1797 when she was heavily pregnant. Sadly, she died from an infection just 10 days after her daughter, Mary Godwin Shelley, was born.
Mary Shelley went on write “Frankenstein” and was heavily influenced by the themes of mortality and the afterlife.
Mary and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, were frequent visitors to the grave when they first met . Mary later wrote to her dead husband that: “That church yard with it[s] sacred tomb was the spot where first love shone in your dear eyes.”
The famous Victorian artist William Powell Frith later painted a picture of the two lovers sitting on a gravestone in St Pancras Old Church.
The churchyard has a strong Gothic feel and I had a strong suspicion that it might have been one of the inspirations for the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel and its infamous monster.
I spent ages trying to locate Mary Wollstonecraft grave but later discovered that her remains had been removed and relocated to Bournemouth!
Hidden Treasure Trove
Inside the small church, there are more hidden secrets and a few intriguing monuments to earlier worshippers. There are also remains of a Norman doorway and fragments from the church’s early history.
A few years ago, workmen uncovered an altar stone which is believed to be from the 11th Century – this has now been restored and can be seen inside the church.
Look out for the memorial to a Daniel Clarke dated 1626 – he’s described as “master cooke to Queen Elizabeth and to King James”. I was keen to learn more about this early master chef.
I discovered that he had a connection with Queen’s Head and Artichoke on Albany Street, Regent Park near where I was staying. The licence for the pub dates back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Apparently, the pub received its odd name thanks to ‘Daniel Clarke’ who later became its proprietor!
Another interesting memorial is the Offley family monument which is decorated with skulls and cherubs – it dates from the 1660s. I was surprised to learn that it also celebrates the lives of their 18 children.
The church itself is simple in design with a wooden roof and white painted walls but it has a special atmosphere which takes you back through centuries of history.
When you’re leaving the church, it’s worth reading the story of The Beatles who did a photo shoot here to promote “Hey Jude” and “The White Album”in July 1968. The eagle-eyed will spot a memorial bench with a plaque commemorating the group’s “Mad Day Out”.
My own ‘mad day out’ ended when I noticed that time had flown by and I needed to run for my train… but I’ll be back next time I’m in London to discover more about this church’s 1,600 years of history.
How To Get There
Leave Kings Cross or St Pancras station by the side entrance and head to Midland Road. Walk for about 400 metres. You can’t miss the church which is on the right hand side of the road.
Admission is free. The church is generally open most days 9:00-17:00.
St Pancras Old Church is Anglo-Catholic which means that it’s part of the Church of England but defines ‘Catholic’ as being part of the Universal Church. It holds masses and follows Catholic traditions.