Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

In 'A Tale of Two Cities', Dickens recalls the work of bodysnatchers in St Pancras Churchyard. The graveyard is in the very shadow of London's magnificently restored St Pancras station. We reflect on how the railways have reshaped the St Pancras area, pay a visit to Somers Town and savour the renaissance of the former Midland Grand station hotel, which reopened as the St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel.

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The traveller in a hurry might nowadays make the journey from Rennes to St Pancras in London in just six hours. Our hypothetical voyager could leave the Breton city in the early afternoon, change trains once in Lille and arrive in London in good time for dinner.

The pace of Abbé Carron’s journey from France to the St Pancras area of London was measured in years rather than hours. He was ousted from his parish in Rennes after the French Revolution, spent two years in prison for refusing to swear allegiance to the new order, and was then deported to the Channel Islands. Only some years later did he arrive to seek sanctuary in the district of London known as Somers Town, a part of the capital that has slipped from the public consciousness, so dominated is the entire district by St Pancras Station.

“I have little doubt that British Railways will do away with St Pancras
altogether. It is too beautiful and too romantic to survive. It is not of
this age.”
John Betjeman, speaking in 1952, on the likely fate of St Pancras railway station

Abbé Carron arrived in Somers Town long before the railway. In those days, the more leisured classes of London would walk on Sundays along the valley of the Fleet, heading north from the crowded city to take the waters at a series of chalybeate springs that then flanked the west side of the gentle Fleet Vale. The city was fast expanding but Somers Town, to the north of what is now Euston Road, still had meadows and orchards. And the empty land attracted a certain kind of Londoner, one more inclined to retreat from the commerce of the city. Among the early residents of this upand- coming area were William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. They lived in adjacent houses on The Polygon, domestic arrangements that some might judge curious as they were in fact married. Wollstonecraft died prematurely, just a few days after giving birth to her daughter Mary (later Mary Shelley) in 1797, so never met Abbé Carron when he arrived in Somers Town a year or two later.

Carron certainly did not come to Somers Town to enjoy cosy discussions with the radical set of writers and philosophers who dominated the social life of the community, though the priest certainly met William Godwin. Of Somers Town society, Carron wrote: “They are charitable people of liberal persuasion.” Carron’s mission was the saving of souls and his flock were the many French Catholics who had left Paris after the revolution and made their way to Somers Town. Some took years to make the journey, and, had they enjoyed the capacity to gaze into the future, they would hardly have believed that two hundred years later thousands of people would be speeding daily from Paris to London in little over two hours.

***

“Almost too fast,” says the vicar as he busily feeds ducks in a little nature reserve that is squeezed into a fragment of empty land between the Regent’s Canal and the railway lines that lead into St Pancras. Camley Street Natural Park is a refuge from modernity, a sanctuary where travellers who have been catapulted from Paris to London in 137 minutes can relax and wait for their souls to catch up with them.


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About the authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 36.