CamdenNewJournal

The independent London newspaper

Fears for The Hardy Tree as suspicious fungus attacks

Exclusive: Council takes 'precautionary measures' to save historic ash

08 August, 2019 — By Tom Foot

SUSPICIOUS fungus has emerged between the grave-gnarled roots of “The Hardy Tree”, raising fears that the popular landmark is riddled with disease and could be chopped down.

The ash tree in St Pancras Gardens has grown up through a pile of tombstones which were moved during construction of the Midland railway works in 1865.

It gets its name from the literary giant Thomas Hardy, who oversaw the exhumations of hundreds of bodies and coffins.

But now an exclusion zone has been set up around the tree after it was infected by a rare parasitic fungus.

Tell-tale fungus appeared last month and experts say there has been an “extensive decomposition of wood in the root base”.

Dr Tony Fincham, the honorary chairman of the Thomas Hardy Society who has visited the tree several times this year from his home in Dorset, told the New Journal: “As a countryman myself, my view is that it is best left alone and that tree surgeons, however well intentioned, usually do more harm than good. I’m not at all sure that efforts so far to help it have done anything except harm to the tree.”

He added: “The tree is important to anyone with an interest in Hardy – if it dies, it will be a shame, but it can be replaced. As implied, I’m still hopeful that if the council leave it alone, it will survive. The death of the tree won’t alter Hardy’s connection with Old St Pancras Church.”

Hardy, who wrote classics including Far From The Madding CrowdTess Of The d’Urbervilles, and Under the Greenwood Tree – was also a trained architect and a “Gothic draughtsman”.

He was employed by Arthur Blomfield – the son of a former Bishop of London – to oversee the removal of hundreds of coffins and bones from St Pancras churchyard during the building of the railway.

Dr Fincham’s book, Hardy’s Landscapes, says: “Blomfield gave Hardy the job of supervising this process which took place during the night behind high hoardings to the light of flare-lamps. It was a gruesome process – Hardy records how one coffin fell apart and was found to contain a single skeleton with two skulls.”

Hardy also wrote a poem about the process – The Levelled Churchyard – which goes:
“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam, And each of us exclaims in fear,
“I know not which I am!”

Chris Hamer, a gallery owner and tree expert who has been monitoring the changes, said: “Sadly it’s not looking its best. It’s been hard pruned, the surrounding box laurel hedge cut right back, and there are suspicious fruiting bodies between the stones.”

In 2011, author Iphgenia Baal revisited the story in her book The Hardy Tree.

A short walk away, the government-backed HS2 project is currently exhuming and boxing-up thousands of graves and human remains to make way for a new railway line into Euston.

The priest at the Old St Pancras Church said it would be better to avoid commenting when asked about the council’s care of the tree.

The fungus – perenniporia fraxinea – is severe if not properly treated and often leads to trees being cut down.

In 1999, an ash tree infected with the same fungus fell and killed three people in Birmingham, leading to the city council being fined £150,000 by the Health and Safety Executive.

A Camden Council statement said “precautionary measures” had been imposed and there had also been some “lopping of the crown”, adding: “The Hardy Tree has been infected with a parasitic fungus. As a precaution, we have installed a temporary fence around it, but cut back the hedge to allow people to continue to view the tree.”

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