A Crypt Experience
Writer in Residence
In Rob Macfarlane’s book Underland: A Deep Time Journey, the world below ground is explored in a collage of stories, from personal experience to myths and legends and references to literature. In Diamond Street, Rachel Lichtenstein descends into the sewers below London’s Hatton Garden to locate the remnants of the River Fleet. My own underground experience, tame in comparison to these exploits but nonetheless engrossing, took place a few years ago when I spent a week as a Writer in Residence in the crypt of St Pancras Church, London—a prominent building opposite the entrance to Euston Station.
Beyond the black iron fence railings that divide church grounds from public pavement, it is possible to see one of the entrances to the crypt; two red-painted metal doors stand out in contrast against grey Portland stone. Above them four caryatids strike a pose—they are sculptures of the female form reminiscent of Grecian urn-carrying figures. These women demonstrate an innate strength as they appear to support a heavy stone entablature above them. This is the north entrance to the crypt and is largely unused—there is another, exactly the same, on the other side of the church. From the car park you enter through the south doors and descend into the crypt via a set of well-worn stone steps. A series of tunnels unfold in front of you—some can be followed, others are blocked by partition walls.
Burials were discontinued in this parish church by Order of the Council in May 1855. ‘The first burial was that of Ellen Strachey, aged 12, on 6th June 1822. The last burial was that of Harry Pearce, aged 71, on 27th October 1854. This peaceful place is still the final home of 557 people. We respect their presence’ (Crypt, St Pancras).
Like many other London burial sites, this crypt was packed to overflowing in its busiest period. Some years ago, most of the coffins were removed yet hundreds of bodies remain hidden behind partition walls, stone tablets, and padlocked iron gates, or beneath bricks and engraved stone markers in the floor. The removal of some of the lead coffins and their contents has left a vast area beneath the church empty and without purpose, and the trustees decided to allow the space to be used for creative purposes: artists book it for ad hoc gallery shows; corporates decorate it with fake cobwebs and real candles to host Hallowe’en parties; and, film crews make the most of its unique atmosphere.
For me, it was an enormous privilege to sit beneath the church for five consecutive days with five hundred and fifty-seven corpses. Alone, I oriented myself by pacing the main aisle: forty-two steps from one set of iron doors to the other. From this main gangway narrower passageways, about a meter wide, shoot sideways; peppered with arched nooks and crannies, some carved deeply, others interconnected, they embrace nothing but air, or so it appears. While exploring the rooms within rooms, I rounded a corner and came upon a stack of memorial stones leaning against a wall, some upside down, and they reminded me of discarded paintings in an artist’s studio. With no human guide to explain why they lay abandoned I concluded that the forgotten epitaphs were what was left after the bodies associated with them were removed.
The lighting in the corridors is positioned to be useful. Glass button-shaped globes flood the vault corridors with the harshness of daylight but when you turn these off spotlights form pale circles on the walls at irregular intervals. Everything about the architecture is irregular: the shapely curves of the arched recesses built by brick masters in the nineteenth century appear slightly off-centre; the floor, also made from brick, sinks away in dark corners; and, where the structure has required attention the remedial work is undisguised. There is little symmetry to be found in the layout of corridors, nooks, and niches.
Seen from the inside, I noted that each pair of metal doors carried six roundels of pierced pattern. The decoration serves a purpose—the low-tech method of air circulation relies on nature rather than a mechanical pump.
I travelled home every evening but for the inmates, whose sojourn below ground is eternal, there was no escape.
Although I was underground, I was not as far down as I’d imagined—only to the depth of fourteen granite stone steps. I had expected peaceful seclusion, however, the everyday sounds of life on Euston Road force their way inside; cars, lorries, busses, taxis, motorbikes, emergency vehicles, and pedestrians, all contribute to a cacophony of noise. During my stay, the air was damp, gritty, oily, and acrid; particulates parked in my nostrils and crawled into my lungs. The clip-clop of horses hooves and the animal smell they would have left in their wake was long gone—only a memory for those still hidden in their tombs.
The bells have resonated in the church tower for nearly two hundred years; their constant ringing has undoubtedly ingrained itself into the stone of the crypt for they toll every fifteen minutes. They ring to the same tune as Parliament’s Big Ben; four notes for the first quarter, eight at half past, further increments at quarter to the hour, and to round off the hour the eight note-tune rings twice. Unlike Big Ben there are no bongs, which I found frustrating because this continuous reminder that time was passing was not backed up with the information I felt I needed—i.e. the specific hour. Cadavers accept the passing of time in their sealed spaces, but every chime had the effect of making me want to check my watch and this went against my planned intention, which was to tune out from the activities of everyday life.
Besides being present and meditating in the space, I wrote. For the first few days I used a notebook and pen and sat on a plastic chair because the floor was too filthy with dust and grime. My words were a stream of consciousness. Further into the week, however, I felt that I was wasting time. My handwriting is awfully bad and I couldn’t get the words down quickly enough. I knew I’d have to type them up eventually so, for the last few days, I worked on my laptop and tried to produce something ‘worthy’. It was all in vain; I produced nothing of any interest or value.
My experience below ground enabled me to appreciate being-in-place and, several months later, I began drafting a book which directly related to one of the tombs I had sat beside in the crypt. I wasn’t sure which direction to take my writing, but while visiting London after the residency and thinking about the people buried in the crypt, and how they would have lived, where they would have walked and what they would have seen, I realised that writing about place in a deep and meaningful way felt absolutely right for me. The book, which is still raw and unfinished, combines memoire with biography and psychogeography; it reflects on the times—then and now—and covers aspects of architectural and social history. When I finish my PhD at the end of next year, I will go back to that draft and complete the book.
I learned that even when you don’t think you are being creative something goes on in your brain, and as long as you feed it with experiences there’ll be plenty to write about when the time is right.
Have you read Underland or Diamond Street?
Have you ever been an Artist in Residence?
What under ground experiences have you had?
Would you spend time in a crypt?
I didn’t have the courage to turn off the lights and sit in the dark but, in one of the middle aisles, beside the tombstones, I did close my eyes for a while. Cool air danced over my cheeks like a piece of gauze. A faint whiff of talcum powder touched me. Was it my own perfume, or my imagination?
Submissions open! Nine Pens Press are looking for poetry that engages with place for a new ‘Natural Beauty Ecopoetry Anthology’. The work must be connected, in some way, with the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty of the UK and Ireland. Closing date 31st December 2022. See more here.
Credits & Links:
All photos my own except where noted.
Rachel Lichtenstein’s “Diamond Street” No.4 Subterranea—a short film. Link to YouTube here.
See Rob Macfarlane’s Guardian article about the writing of Underland here.
And the Crypt Gallery website is here.