Exactly one week before we were due to go off on our continental travels this summer, I had a vivid dream in which I was hillside and it stayed with me long after waking; even now, I can feel the ghost of it. In this dream, I experienced everything as though I was both a hill and a crouched human form in a sort of yoga pose, whilst the breeze stroked through my grass blades and the fast-turning seasons sped past like on one of those time-lapse videos, the passing clouds throwing alternate patterns of warmth and cool on my back. The next day, I happened to be in London, visiting the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and there, tucked away high on a wall, was this startlingly accurate image, like a freeze-frame from my dream (and not just any hill but Silbury Hill, Avebury – as I’ve written about many times before); the coincidence feeling like a sort of nod to its significance.
It was no accident that I recently shared here about my experiences of mirror touch synesthesia as those experiences are seeming to have more and more to do with the ‘outer’ landscape of my world and the way these morph with, and match, the most inner travels of my psyche. Journeys I go on, places I happen to visit, intersections and crossings I encounter play out like the inner ruminations of my soul, untangling conundrums, delivering epiphanies and layers of meaning that cross over and join up as surely as the very roads and bridges of my travels.
The journey we had planned this time would take us to Brussels and Holland by train but, first, we had a day in London ready to catch the Eurostar early the next morning. As we were staying in London during a tube strike that made it necessary to scrap our original plans, we focussed on what we could do and see near our hotel. This twist of fate sent me off, unexpectedly, to the British Library (not somewhere I had ever chosen to go before) and then to St Pancras Old Church (a spot that had flagged up to me before yet how often, on a precious trip to the capital, had I ever got around to visiting a tiny church tucked way behind the sprawling railway station that seems to mark the edge of all that is ‘interesting’?); yes, both unlikely places yet I could tell I was in the mood to be led by the unexpected.
So, first, to the British Library; a stunning piece of modern architecture that had been all-but invisible to me until now but the real surprise was the manuscripts room. In dimly lit cases, my eyes feasted upon “How do I love thee, let me count the ways…” in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own hand, with crossings-out where she must have hesitated over a word here, a line there; the academic familiarity of these words suddenly pared back into the raw, vulnerable, heart-felt emotion from which they birthed. Next, Hardy’s ‘Tess of the of the d’Urbervilles’, with a telling paragraph struck out with strident pen-lines; a tweak that said more about the moral pressures that the author was subject to than if it had been left in (* more on that below). Then, oh, there was ‘Jane Eyre'(**)…beloved lines of my youth. With a suddenness and power that startled me, I became choked with emotion at what I was seeing; why did these scraggy, age-worn manuscripts move me so much? Was it encountering them in the raw, feeling the art-process in the making, the immediacy and daring commitment of fleeting words dragged from the ether; words that were destined to be repeated and reprinted and quoted and revised to oblivion, made fixed as though made of stone and yet, in the moment they were created, they were still a variable, an impulse, a new-born potential, a risk, just as much as any brush-stroke I ever place?
It was like being taken back to my youth when these words rang out golden and true, ignited my heart with meaning and seemed to hold all the riches of my world; how I loved to lose myself in my books. I realised how, lately, I had become jaded with written words, with fiction especially, had become cynical even about how they came to print and became the so-called classics, the new best-sellers, of our time; strung all-about with the hit and miss accolades of temporary celebrity only to be added to next year’s second-hand book pile. These were the originals, the ones who forged the path – for me, for all of us, for women especially (and there, right next to the Brontës, was Jane Austen’s own hand). They had striven to put themselves into print, dared to have their thoughts read, at a time when to do so was no easy task compared to the immediacy and ease of the self-publishing blog era. That impulse to share – my eyes met the awesomeness of ‘Beowulf’, hefty epic poem that I wrestled with for my degree but, still, the first ‘book’ as we know it – had been born of us so that we could all scratch our reader’s itch with the same ease with which we once wove stories around a campfire. In this room, I was thrown back to my source, to what lay so important in my heart all those years ago, as I set out into the big wide world just knowing that I wanted to create something; lately I had felt so unsure in that purpose, about even what fired me, had doubted my own creator-powers, my ‘point’. Here, in one glass case, were the idols of my youth, complete with all their own hesitations, insecurities and doubts; nothing had ever been a ‘given’ for them either; they were their own work in progress, just like me.
Then there was more; to the left – Bach and Handel as hand-written sheet music, to the right ‘Ticket to ride’ and ‘Yesterday scribbled onto scraps of paper that could have been pages torn off a menu. How the raw creative process was swirling all around me now, like coloured inks stirred in a pot of oil, I felt almost drunk-dizzy with it; could feel all these creators gathered like spirits in the room. It was as though I was stood in a temple to the creative process and I felt newly baptised into the holy spirit of it; how could our coming here have been any sort of accident when it felt so much like a ‘meant to be’ at this exact moment in my life?
Across the other side of the room, another feast to the eyes that my soul knew I had been destined for that day – a collection of holy books from every long tradition; all beautifully decorated, illuminated, precious and shining and, from two steps away, they could all have been versions of the very same thing, were all so obviously conveying the self-same message that it was overwhelming to see them next to each other. Countless wars had been fought over the supposed differences here on display yet, it occurred to me, these sacred texts filling two vast cabinets of manuscript were so alike in the way they had been embellished that a visitor to our world could have been forgiven for assuming they were all singing the same song, playing notes of the same tune. The truism of this, made uniquely possible by seeing them side-by-side, was incredibly moving to me.
A little dazed now, like I was stepping out of a chapel into the dazzling afternoon sun, we made our way to St Pancras Old Church alongside the vastness of St Pancras station. These days, all my arrivals take place at Paddington or Waterloo but, across all those years of my youth that this was ‘my station’, my gateway to the world, arriving from the Midlands as I did, I never once gave serious thought to what lay beyond its apparent boundary marker. Down the long pavement opposite all the taxi ranks, lined with old railway warehouses stuffed with reclaimed furniture beside a busy main road that was quite relentless with traffic, we continued past new-build office blocks and 1930s flats and, then, I was suddenly taken aback by this small oasis of green tucked behind the urban sprawl of St Pancras International. A gem-like churchyard raised high above road level, bordered with iron railings and a tiny church that had all the feel of the ancient site that it belongs to, for all the current building is relatively modern at just several hundred years old and remodelled by the Victorians; I could hardly believe what I was seeing.
Somehow preserved when St Pancras ‘new‘ Church (of the classical pillars that made my ‘head hurt’, in my last post) became the more fashionable place to be, it was incredible to imagine this as the rural parish that it must have been, two hundred years ago, set within the district that I can recall Dickens making reference to as Somers Town; set in a field subject to flooding when the nearby River Fleet regularly broke its banks. That river (yes, of Fleet Street fame; see my final Notes, below, for an interesting insight into the telling history of its watery flow) is now buried deep beneath the surface of the city; its waters no longer glisten in the light of day but, for the moment, have gone to ground like a startled fox. Yet, just knowing this about a place considered by some to be the oldest Christian site in England, one of the oldest in Europe (the date given is AD 314) and almost certainly a spiritual site long before that; that, once, it was positioned next to flowing water, told me all I needed to know about the sacred feminine energy hub that it is, for all it is named after a male Roman martyr ****.
As I walked the path to the church porch, I almost stepped on a butterfly sunning itself on the ground right in front of my feet and, as I spoke to it, it fluttered up at me and onwards towards the door, as though to lead the way. Inside, I was greeted by a golden pagan sun; by far the most striking adornment of many in a space as brightly lit as it could be, washed with white. I instantly liked this place for feeling broader than its latter-day denomination; its energy held a clear, timeless note and people young and old came in, sat down for a few moments then left again, smiling as they passed at the door. In fact, I was surprised to find it left open and unattended in central London but it was clearly in regular use. A recently added marble stone at the entrance read ‘And I am here, in a place beyond desire or fear’…
Outside in the unexpected green of the churchyard, another point of interest was the tree laid out with a circle of gravestones, respectfully salvaged by the surveyor in charge of excavating the churchyard for the Midlands Railway (‘my’ old line) that, in the 1860s, sliced relentlessly through its middle when it was built, literally cutting it in half. To make way for the railway, countless bodies and slabs had to be removed from the ground and, somehow, dispensed with – they say, 10-15,000 bodies were moved to a mass grave. The young surveyor overseeing this daunting task was, oh-so coincidentally, the author Thomas Hardy** of just an hour earlier at the British Library; the same desire to show respect seeming to fuel this act of salvage as had caused him to remove a section of his manuscript in case it offended his readers. The tree, a weeping ash, has now grown into the slabs and made them part of itself, rooting them even more deeply to this spot than they ever were before, as though to laugh in the face of the relentless shove and push of the ‘progress’ that would seem to have its way at all cost. Now known as ‘The Hardy Tree’, this living monument stands like a reminder that, whatever we seem to sweep aside, lose touch with and trample upon with such abandon, in the relentless, often single-minded, quest for progression, something much more deeply rooted to the soil that we came from always manages to remain; those roots run much deeper than we know, nor can we ever shake off the impulse to regenerate, to thrive and to strive towards the light.
Had my two destinations been planned as some-sort of joint trip, I could have done no better as woven into the fabric of life here, again, were some of the same characters I had met at the library; for instance, Bach’s name was here, amongst a long list of other well-known names who had been interred in this churchyard. They include the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, one of the ‘founding fathers’, Mary Wollstonecraft*** (very early advocate of women’s rights; Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an ardent admirer) and her political philosopher husband William Godwin. The poet Shelley and the future Mary Shelley*** of ‘Frankenstein’ fame (her vision of man’s creation run amoc has influenced our entire culture) had their secret assignations there before they eloped and Charles Dickens mentions this churchyard in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ as a location of body snatching for medical dissections, which is not an unlikely practice to have taken place at the time (though not quite on the scale carried out by the railwaymen, it has to be said). William Blake – who just happened to be good friends with Mary Wollstonecraft – apparently placed the church on his mystical map of London. The Beatles (another coincidence with earlier) were photographed in the churchyard on their infamous ‘Mad Day Out’ in 1968 – just three months after I was born – for their promotion of ‘The White Album’.
How can one churchyard have so many fingers in the pie of history, I asked myself; this one small place seems to have been a hub of activity both bizarre and far-reaching, a veritable cross-roads**** of so much human activity, so many movers and shakers, all drawn to it as though by a magnet before they spiral out and make their dent on the world; a trait shared with so many other places that have both fascinated and drawn me, as written about in this space.
One of its most interesting features is the mausoleum for architect John Soane *****, creator of the Royal Academy and his wife. Designer of the original Bank of England, his aesthetic vision influenced the austere-yet-trustworthy way banks and financial institutions have portrayed themselves – quite literally, as ‘pillars’ of strength – across the world ever since. The mausoleum avoids any Christian reference-point but, instead, bears a pine-cone (Ancient Egyptian symbol for regeneration – I have such a one in my hallway) as its finial and, below, a serpent eating its tail. If its shape seems familiar, this is because its design became the inspiration for the iconic red telephone boxes that have almost become our national emblem. My mother’s waters broke, for my birth, while she was standing in such a phone box (Clark Kent, eat your heart out) and I spent many life altering moments stood inside their shape before the days of mobile telephony. I couldn’t help noticing how some of the very universal symbols of recent times – and then some very personal ones – had been born or conceived of in this churchyard. So many people who had made their mark on history had ‘happened’ to muddle their human way back and forth across this crossing-place yet the the bigger themes had always shone through; a bigger design overlaying even the darkness and tragedies seemed to be in place and shining out of this location as, I suspected, it had always done and in a way that a few physical scars sustained along the way did nothing to diminish.
Feeling the sacred feminine at work in this place, I could sense her deep underground waters were still flowing and dancing merrily, as though she knew all of this and was smiling. She signalled something deeply personal to me, just as the earlier visit to the manuscript room had spoken softly in my ear. It therefore surprised me, not, that the churchyard owed much of its present state, preserved as a London park, to another woman – one Angela Burdett-Coutts, a wealthy banking heiress and philanthropist – who in 1879 built a striking monument to all the exhumed bodies of the churchyard, decorated with a sundial and corner-guarded by three lions and a dog (said to be modelled on her own). Perhaps she too had heard a whisper in her ear in this spot; felt the gentle tug of something deep and divine inspiring her to her calling.
Yet again, all of this felt like a ‘meant to be’, like I had kept an unwitting appointment to arrive here this day. As all of my experiences settled within, they seemed to carry messages deep and far-reaching about my own creative journey, the stuck points, interruptions, rapes and severances, the parts where (creative) flow had been forced underground for fear of overspilling, the many roots and flourishes that had withstood the tests of time and all the many trials of life, the parts where I had allowed myself to become buried or censored through fixed ideas of what others would find unacceptable or not want to know, then the parts that continued to shine out gem-like, for all they have been boxed in by the relentless sprawl of life’s convoluted experience. I had re-learned the perfection of my own imperfections and the resilience of my own purposes too; and all this from the landscape of my day.
Even the slicing of this churchyard by a railway line that linked to my birthplace, to my creative source (my younger self); whose line I had travelled along, to our capital, all the first times I visited there (the very first time was to visit its art galleries), which marked the opening-up of my world and of me – just as those manuscripts in the British Library had served as such a reminder – felt like a timely echo of something I was now ready to hear. Those first journeys had sealed my fate because they led me to this hub of a place and I had stayed hereabouts, feeding on its inspiration all these years. As surely as that train line had cut this place in half, it had reiterated its status as a crossroads since the hard line of steel thrown out from this place had – just as surely – brought me here in the first place; to the crossing point of so many experiences of my life.
How many times must I have passed this tiny churchyard, just the other side of a brick wall, on all those journeys that opened my world up and, ultimately, brought me South to where I have lived for thirty years now and, yet, never once had I visited this place before or given it thought, for all I had crossed over it at some very poignant times. I wondered how I had never picked out its tiny bell tower from the grey blur of St Pancras sidings as the train slowed at the signals on so many journeys ‘in’ to the capital…wondered if I might catch a glimpse of it the next day as this line, again, sent me ‘out’ on the Eurostar to Brussels.
That night we dined at The Gate restaurant in (Angel) Islington but the synchronistic messages leaping out at me from those names hardly hit me until we awaited our taxi at the end, stood beneath a giant neon sign that glowed ‘Angel’ into the London dusk. Not knowing this part of London quite so well as others, I hadn’t been aware that our restaurant was such a stones throw from Sadlers Wells Theatre (which we drove past) either, nor had I made the connection with the Holy Well from which that name derives, as still incorporated as a small glass disk you can peer at, set into the theatre floor (that information came to me later). There was a time when people flocked to that well for healing and musical entertainment, a stroll in the gardens as they took the water; hard to imagine that now. It seems to me, a little more each time I go there, that London is all strung about with deeper layers and many intriguing undercurrents. For a guide to the holy wells and where you can find them, I refer you to David Furlong‘s website, which I have dipped into before.
When we wheeled our cases along that platform the next morning, counting down the coaches until we reached our reserved seats at the far end of the train, we remembered our thoughts of yesterday and turned out heads to the window, just in case there was anything to see. Of course, there it was – exactly parallel to our carriage – the distinct square tower of Old St Pancras and, we knew, a tiny green gemstone of a churchyard carved out of a grey city, and a tree half-made out of stone slabs, tucked just beneath. In effect, we were sitting in its graveyard just as the engines started to vibrate. How could I fail to know, now, that this journey we were embarking on was of far more significance than ‘just’ a holiday; with so many layers of it already speaking to me so audibly, I was able to settle back in my seat and know, without doubt, that this was just the opening chapter of all it had to tell me.
Onwards to Bruges and Amsterdam – continued in Layers of the Landscape – Part Two…
* The section of his manuscript crossed out by Hardy would have implied, more overtly than his publishers were prepared to include, that Tess was pregnant out of wedlock and he was forced to make several omissions from the original manuscript in order to see his work in print. This section was later returned to the printed edition in 1891 but Hardy continued to edit the text until his death; marking an endless tug and pull between his impulse to honour the Tess of his creation and yet meet public expectations of him. Something in this spirit of not wanting to offend seems to mirror his situation as a young surveyor, forced on the one hand to plough relentlessly ahead as the instrument of his employers, the railway line, yet seeking to make good of his own impulse to respect the churchyard and those remembered there. The extent to which he remained haunted by his involvement in the exhumation of bodies from the churchyard was played out in a later poem – The Levelled Churchyard (1882):
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!’
I sense the many compromises he made in his manuscripts haunted him no less than did the exhumation of these bodies; censorship and the need to conform were the very bain of his life to the end, a frustration he vented in an Essay ‘Candour in English Fiction‘. These two aspects of Hardy’s life highlight the truism of how our inner wranglings, our deepest dilemmas, tend to play out and become matched as the solid physical circumstances, the circumstantial conundrums, that we find ourselves living in; until we release one and so release all. Creative freedom is fundamental to all people, not just to artists, and the reminder of this was delivered amply through the coincidence of these two circumstances, presented via my very interesting day in these two places – a timely reminder to do, and create, only what the heart sings about and leave the rest!
** ‘Jane Eyre’ meant much a lot to me after I first read it all those years ago and has stayed with me as the eponymous ‘mad woman in the attic’ concept that I know I still carry around with me, symbolic of those aspects of self that you never quite dare let out in public or through your work!
*** Mary Shelley’s mother Mary Wolstonecraft – writer, philosopher and feminist before her time, author of ” Vindication of the Rights of Women” (1792) – was married at Old St Pancras Church and, when she died of an infection shortly after giving birth to Mary, she was buried there. Her body was relocated to the Shelley family grave in Bournemouth when the railways brought Old St Pancras churchyard under threat but her tomb is still there. Her daughter Mary and the poet Shelley used her tomb as their meeting place prior to their elopement (Shelley was already married at the time – his pregnant first wife committed suicide when he eloped with Mary). Given they would have, no doubt arranged their rendezvous for times when they would not be seen, they were probably witness to other things that took place in that churchyard late at night.
When bodies were removed from the ground for the railway, some were found to be dismembered and when Dickens referred to Old St Pancras as a grave-robber location for the kind of medical experimentation that had become popular at the time of his novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (set nearer the time when the Shelleys were meeting than when he wrote it), he was probably drawing from local anecdote. So, could Mary Shelley have used her late-night experiences there to fuel her vision of Frankenstein, a creature made of pieced-together limbs brought to life using electricity? Frankenstein’s monster – a name that has since become the very catchphrase for human ambition run amok, science and machine let out of the bag to the point of self-destruction, trampling over all; how interesting that these concepts should be rooted in this one place along with so many other universal themes of the times we are just starting to come out of as we wisen-up to our own impact upon much more than just the immediate world around us, our own self-focussed preoccupations.
**** St Pancras Old Church is thought to stand on the site of a pagan compita (shrine situated at a crossroads) as is typical of shrines that were converted to Christian use by early missionaries. Such cross roads are often associated with leylines and energy hubs, points where certain vibrational criteria were deemed to be met by those who knew what they were looking for as clues from the landscape. Where situated by flowing water, these places were typically equated with the divine feminine and, when given their Christian makeover, were often dedicated to another female, typically St Mary but clearly not in this case. St Pancras was a very early Christian martyr, beheaded for his faith in Rome in 304AD, perhaps testament to how soon after that date this site was converted to Christian usage compared to many sacred sites.
***** Sir John Soane, a good friend of WM Turner, also designed, amongst many other things, The Royal Academy, London (as of the image that started off this ‘journey’) – a building I seem to step into with ever-increasing regularity – and also a triangular royal palace which never left the drawing-board but makes for an intriguing design on paper.
So, what ever happened to the River Fleet? Its flow derives from two streams on Hampstead Heath, which has its own ancient site (and passing leyline, many believe); a barrow, thought to date to about 2-3000BC. This mound is sometimes known as Boadicea’s Mound or Grave from when she was defeated by the invading Romans; an event sometimes equated with the upturning of the Sacred Feminine in these lands (read what you like into this coincidence and what then came to pass). At one time a major river, the Fleet was once dotted with wells and springs, several reputed to have healing properties (it was even known as River of Wells in the 13th century). However, as industrialisation took over the city, it was gradually turned into ‘just another’ open sewer by all the filth thrown into it. In 1728, Alexander Pope referred to it as a ‘tribute to dead dogs’ and more effective than a dyke at ‘blot[ting] the silver flood’, and this delightful description from Jonathan Swift in ‘Gulliver’s Travels says it all:
“Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood”
Even Sir Christopher Wren’s elaborate attempt to open out the lower reaches of the Fleet into a canal based upon the Grand Canal in Venice was a failure due to the constant backwash of sewage from higher upstream. A rather romantic depiction of the Fleet in one of London’s modern-day murals depicts it as a free-flowing river wending past St Pancras Church with Mary and Percy Shelley throwing off paper boats off a bridge and a drawing from 1827 on the church railings depicts bathers in the water yet the reality is that, by the early nineteenth century, it was already being gobbled up by the filth and overcrowding of city living. As the city expanded and the grabbing need for more space put pressure upon every square inch of land, various sections of its flow were covered up, one by one, condemning it to its fate as an underground sewer, as it is today. Its course flows beneath the infamous Fleet Street made famous by our tabloid press; so, it lies literally buried beneath all the convoluted spin of our times – how very apt.
Apparently its flowing waters can still be heard in a single spot in Clerkenwell through the grating in the concrete. Only when the rains are hard and heavy enough can it be seen at all, gushing modestly into the Thames near Blackfriars Station, by the bridge I happened to photograph the day I saw the picture that opened this post. Boris Johnson has, apparently, proposed reopening sections of the river for ornamental purposes but the suggestion has been greeted with pessimism. What a metaphor for recent human history this all is (for a poem about the lost rivers of London, dated 1907, hop over to this website where you can also find out about tours). For me personally – delivered as the metaphor of myself – it has shed the hugest insight upon my own bricked in, deeply buried flow and the crying need for the kind of tidal-wave that would bring inspiration and outward expression gushing to the surface where it can sparkle in the light of day. Something tells me my own River Fleet is ready for a resurgence!
As for the way we treat our ancient places; interestingly, even more bodies had to be exhumed from the churchyard at St Pancras Old Church for the work relating to the Eurostar line, which stirred a certain amount of controversy. For my own part, I am less disturbed by the removal of hundred-year-old burial stones (perhaps because I would prefer my own lasting ‘markers’ to be any paintings or manuscripts that I happen to leave behind) than the careless carving up of places that have served as energy-markers on the landscape – not out of respect for them but because, surely, we are missing the very point of them. If we were to bulldoze the pyramids or stonehenge and replace them with a multiplex cinema or a hotel complex, do any of us really think that the unique energy held in those places would be suppressed or would it simply creep through the concrete slabs like the roots of a tree, shifting and morphing with the structure to become part of that thing? Such places mark, and make space for, locations that hold a particular vibe, that activate something in us and it matters not whether this place is temple or church or standing stone or garden or a clearing in the woods – or even whether it is forced underground – as that vibe will continue to do its thing, although how much more difficult does that become if buried deep beneath concrete. Like losing sight of our own essence, our particular ‘note’, by shoving it deep out of sight, we learn sooner or later that it must ‘out’.
On a lighter note, St Pancras Church is one of a handful of churches following a new trend of offering themselves as gig-venues for live music events, attracting a whole new audience of young people to the spot, a healthy sign of that vibe resurfacing and regenerating from the very roots up!
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What a fascinating unexpected pilgrimage Helen. And what an amazing dream to have.
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