St Pancras Old Church: heritage, worship and community
Published: Thursday, September 1, 2016
In 2014, the National Churches Trust awarded St Pancras Old Church a £20,000 Repair Grant for urgent repair and building works. With the work completed, we visited this historic church to see how our funding has helped.
The church stands on a site that has been dedicated to Christian worship since the fourth century. As you step through the ornate iron gates which mark the boundary between Pancras Road and the ancient churchyard of St Pancras Old Church you enter a sanctuary of calm far removed from the rapidly changing area outside. Up the road is the brand new Francis Crick Institute; Google’s new offices are just round the corner; and, directly behind the churchyard wall, the Eurostar whisks passengers at high speed to Europe.
The current church building has seen many restoration projects, including those carried out in 1847, 1888, 1925, and 2007. The work funded by the National Churches Trust is the latest in this constant process of change.
The urgent building works helped by the National Churches Trust Repair Grant included filling in Victorian drainage gullies, connecting the church to the main sewer system, and repairing the disabled toilets and kitchen area.
With the works complete the updated facilities enable the church to provide a warmer welcome to visitors and regular worshippers alike. In particular, the disabled toilet means that a wider section of local people can be invited into the church including older people and school groups.
A wide variety of events held at the church include regular acoustic concerts which attract up to one hundred people. A popular lecture series has covered the Romantic poets, a talk from the Garter King of Arms, and the controversy of Henry VIII’s will.
Fr James Elston, team rector, said:
“Without the generous grant from the National Churches Trust, we would have had a significant shortfall in our budget and this would have put pressure on an already stretched congregation to raise more money.”
The many centuries of history of St Pancras Old Church can be best seen in its varied architecture. Although the church was rebuilt in the Victorian era, it retained Norman architectural features such as the elaborate geometric front entrance arch. Fragments of stonework are thought to come from Roman and Norman shrines.
Just as fascinating as the small but perfectly formed interior is the churchyard. In the three hundred years from 1600, it is thought that 1.5% of all London’s six million burials took place here.
It was in this churchyard that Mary Shelley planned her elopement with Percy Shelley, while visiting the grave of her mother, the women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. Also here stands the tomb designed by Sir John Soane for his family vault, which became the inspiration for the famous red telephone box.
The twisted ‘Hardy Tree’, growing amongst a ring of gnarled gravestones, is the work of author Thomas Hardy. As architectural surveyor for the expansion of the railways in 1866, he managed the disinterment and construction of a dense ring of graves around an ancient ash tree. The story goes that he became so fed up with surveying that he quit to become a writer.
Moving closer to the present, the Beatles on their ‘Mad Day Out’ LIFE magazine photo shoot were pictured in the churchyard in 1968. More recently, the 2012 London Olympic torch relay passed by the church. Increased visitor numbers to the area at the time of the Olympics, travelling from St Pancras station to the Olympic Park, led to the development of a new guidebook about the church.
Using its experience of welcoming visitors, the church has shared its knowledge on how to run guided tours with neighbouring churches. This work continues with new interpretative boards offering an insight into the heritage of the church and local area, and a children’s guidebook.
Into the future
The repair and building works were completed in 2015. A year on, the church is fundraising for another phase of building work. Old drains under the church need to be stabilised to prevent subsidence - or, as the parish website puts it, to stop St Pancras Old Church ‘slowly attempting to make its way down the gentle hillock that has been the site of Christian worship for over 1000 years’.
St Pancras Old Church is an excellent example of what a church in the twenty first century should be; an open church with worship at its heart and a place where a wide range of events are enjoyed by local people and visitors.
Find out more at sosstpancras.org
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