The Hardy Tree A Beloved Fixture Of A London Cemetery Topples Over

The Hardy Tree, a Beloved Fixture of a London Cemetery, Topples Over

The Hardy Tree A Beloved Fixture Of A London Cemetery Topples Over

The tree, named after the author Thomas Hardy, was surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century gravestones. It was a popular site for locals and tourists.

LONDON — A small group of onlookers gathered in a little church graveyard in central London on Tuesday, in the pouring rain, taking in the sight of an old, toppled ash tree.

“It’s fitting for it to be raining, isn’t it?” Siobhan Bradshaw, an artist who lives nearby, said to the others. She had admired the tree, with its roots encircled by an unusual arrangement of overlapping gravestones, since she started visiting the gardens surrounding St. Pancras Old Church two decades ago. She came to the park after hearing that the tree had fallen. “It’s so beautiful,” she said, as someone lay a pink rose on a gravestone in front of the tree.

A living link to Victorian England, the so-called Hardy Tree was named for the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy. Before writing such classics as “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Hardy worked for the architect Arthur Blomfield, whose firm was hired in the 1860s for an unappealing job: exhuming human remains, including recently buried ones, from the cemetery to make way for a new railway line.

That task was assigned to Hardy, who spent hours in the churchyard, overseeing the excavation of more than 10,000 graves, according to the St. Pancras Old Church. Some say Hardy had the headstones rearranged, like books on a shelf, around the tree that would later bear his name, although the Rev. James Elston of the St. Pancras Old Church said there was no evidence of that. For more than a century, the tree’s roots grew around and over the headstones.

The Hardy Tree’s roots grew over and around the gravestones surrounding it.Mary Turner for The New York Times
Mary Turner for The New York Times

The tree fell at some point over the long holiday weekend. Adam Harrison, a member of Camden Council, the local government authority that managed the tree’s care, said that it was diseased and that the group had already begun discussing ways to honor it, including using the tree’s wood to create a commemorative object or planting a new tree.

“Sadly, the Hardy Tree was infected with a fungus in 2014, and since then we’ve been taking steps to manage its final few years,” Mr. Harrison said in a statement on Wednesday. “The tree was disturbed by storms earlier this year, increasing the chance that it would fall.”

Tracy Hayes, the secretary of the Thomas Hardy Society, a literary group with more than 1,100 members around the world, said it was involved in the discussions with Camden Council about the tree.

“Poor thing was simply falling apart, it was so diseased,” Dr. Hayes said. “As long as some kind of memorial is put there to recognize Hardy’s ideas about the Victorian era in particular, that would be nice, as far as we’re concerned.”

On Tuesday afternoon, a few local residents gathered around the tree, either in tribute or because they happened to be walking by with their dogs. Lester Hillman, a church volunteer and a local guide, recited a Hardy poem.

We late-lamented, resting here,

Are mixed to human jam,

And each to each exclaims in fear,

‘I know not which I am!’

Mr. Hillman said the poem was inspired by Hardy’s work in the St. Pancras Old Church cemetery. Among the remains that were exhumed were those of William Franklin, the son of Benjamin Franklin, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Hillman said.

Joseph Khoury, a tourist from Canada on a two-week vacation to Britain, was familiar with the tree but did not know that it had fallen until he arrived at the cemetery with his son and saw it for himself. “It’s such a landmark,” he said. “The thing that’s going through my mind is will they plant another tree in its place to commemorate it.”

The site on which the Hardy Tree grew is one of the oldest places of Christian worship in London, and Roman tile can be found in the exposed medieval wall of the Anglo-Catholic church that was rebuilt there, according to Father Elston. Before the cemetery excavation, the churchyard was frequented by Charles Dickens, who lived nearby and referred to it in “The Tale of Two Cities.” Mary Shelley, who wrote “Frankenstein,” also spent time in the park, where her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, was buried before her remains were relocated.

The Hardy Tree, which was reportedly diseased, in February.Erin McCann/The New York Times

Father Elston said he hoped that people would still visit the place where the tree stood, since the gravestones that encircled it had hardly been damaged by the falling tree. “It was a way into the church,” he said. “I hope the site will still be of significance.”

Richard Roques, who leads tours of the King’s Cross area, which includes the Hardy Tree, said he loved it for its connection to the past.

“It tells a story, a physical story of time changing and the march of progress and the railways going ahead, and the tree then simply continuing in its growth while the gravestones are there,” Mr. Roques said.

Roses were left on a gravestone in memory of the Hardy Tree on Tuesday.Mary Turner for The New York Times

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