On Friday 12 April 2024 at about 11am a small group of people gathered in Old St Pancras churchyard in north London. The event, organised by Camden Council, was the planting of a replacement for the famous Hardy Tree which collapsed overnight on 27 December 2022.

THE NEW ‘HARDY TREE’

On Friday 12 April 2024 at about 11am a small group of people gathered in Old St Pancras churchyard in north London. The event, organised by Camden Council, was the planting of a replacement for the famous Hardy Tree which collapsed overnight on 27 December 2022. The Thomas Hardy Society was represented by myself, an ordinary member, Tony Fincham, Vice-Chairman, and Charlotte Munn, Secretary, together with members of the church congregation and the general public, and one dog. We were greeted by Riccardo Arnone, Arboricultural Officer of Camden Tree Service who organises tree planting for the borough. Meanwhile the tree contractors’ van was standing by. One of Thomas Hardy’s first jobs as a young architect in 1862 was respectfully to supervise the moving of large numbers of tombstones and the contents of the graves to make way for the new railway which now passes behind a high wall. The myth grew up that Hardy had chosen to pile several of these gravestones around an existing Ash Tree. But a recently-discovered photograph from 1926 shows the gravestones seeking support from each other - no Ash Tree in sight! It seems that a passing bird should probably take the credit for the casual planting some time after Hardy had completed the work. Nonetheless, the Tree in its position there supporting the gravestones, came to be known as the Hardy Tree, memorialising his gruesome job, which later inspired several of his poems, serious and humorous, investing the corpses with a semblance of life.

After Riccardo’s welcome, I gave a short talk explaining why a Beech sapling had been chosen to replace the Hardy Ash, illustrated with two readings which reveal Thomas Hardy’s love of trees. The novel, Under the Greenwood Tree has a reference to the ‘Beech’ in the opening paragraph where Dick Dewey, hastening through the wood is keenly aware of the different species along his path.

“To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.”

Thus, the scene is set for the reader to share the experiences of people who conduct their daily lives in constant, lively companionship with trees.

My second reading was from the last chapter which begins: “The point in Yalbury Wood which abutted on the end of Geoffrey Day’s [the bride’s father] premises was closed with an ancient tree, horizontally of enormous extent, though having no great pretensions to height.” The newlyweds and their young friends dance under this great tree, and “Whilst the dancing progressed the older persons sat in a group under the trunk of the tree” and told yarns as they watched the ‘pirouetting’ of the youngsters. These days, when THS walking groups visit the gamekeeper’s cottage from time to time, a massively tall Beech can be noted near the house. Is this Hardy’s Greenwood Tree? The Tree of the novel, as we read above, is outstanding more for the convenient shade of its horizontal spread than for its vertical height, so there must always be a question mark over this identification. But it is so exactly in the right position…  

Tony Fincham then read two poems, one of which, ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ written almost twenty years later in 1880-81, with somewhat black humour imagines the complaints of the disturbed corpses:

"We late-lamented, resting here,
    Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
    'I know not which I am!'

After the readings, attention turned to the New Tree itself. The pit had already been dug so it was up to the three treemen to ensure that it was well and truly rooted in its new abode, which they did with strong-armed but loving care. The spot chosen was equidistant, on the one hand, from the old site, now just a circle of overgrown tombstones safely hedged in, and, on the other, from the carcase of the Ash which has been reduced to an arrangement of huge logs. These will not only attract insects and other wildlife but will provide a convenient and more or less comfortable rustic seat for Hardy-lovers come to contemplate the scene. The tall new sapling is backed by the ivy-covered Victorian wall behind which the trains pass to and fro as a reminder of past histories. But the spot is also wide open to the sky so that the growing tree will be able to spread its branches freely as it slowly attains its full Beech-ness, for the shelter and delight of future generations.

 

Mavis Pilbeam 8 May 2024

 

THE HARDY BLACKBIRD

As I drew the Tree

A blackbird sang to me.

On I drew and drew and drew:

He sang and sang and sang on too.

 

Till, finished, I pack my things:

Still the blackbird sings.

I move down the steps, done for the day,

The blackbird singing, singing away.

 

E’en now, in my head his joy-note rings.

             [Go it! My Boy! My Beauty!]

                            Lord! How that blackbird sings!

 

Mavis Pilbeam.

Written around 16 May 2024 when I drew the new Hardy Tree, a Beech sapling planted to replace the Hardy Ash which fell overnight on 22 December 2022 in Old St Pancras Churchyard.

With a nod to Vespers , a poem by T.E.Brown (1839-97): ‘O blackbird, what a boy you are!...’ etc

The Hardy Tree


Illustration by Mavis Pilbeam

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