My Week

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Ja­son Good­win

Ja­son Good­win spreads the love

THERE’S a stylish fel­low called Tyler Brûlé who has an FT col­umn and is al­ways re­design­ing air­port lounges or leav­ing Toronto and turn­ing up in Can­berra. I had a taste of the whirl­wind ex­is­tence my­self last week—wheels up at Is­tan­bul, visit the holi­est site in Lon­don and touch­down in Pisa— and, for much of the time I was en­joy­ing the high life, I found my­self think­ing about muck.

Last year, when we dug out new veg­etable beds from an old lawn, I naïvely sup­posed that onions the size of foot­balls would sprout from the vir­gin earth, as they did for home­stead­ers on the grass­lands of the Great Plains. Un­for­tu­nately, the cour­gettes and peas strug­gled to out­pace the depre­da­tions of slugs and four out of five pump­kins failed, the sur­vivor merely throw­ing out a sin­gle, des­per­ate fruit at the end of a mass of fleshy ten­drils. The soil was too thin and chalky.

I cadged a load of muck from Tom’s farm. Shortly be­fore I went to Is­tan­bul, he turned up on a trac­tor stuffed with small chil­dren and hoist­ing a huge bucket of the purest, deep­est black gold. It was, he said, vin­tage bio­dy­namic pro­duce, laid down by his pre­de­ces­sors, rot­ted to the per­fect crumb. He dropped it neatly on the veg­etable beds and we carted it about and dug it in.

I don’t know what Mr Brûlé thinks about in bed, but in un­fa­mil­iar rooms in Is­tan­bul and Florence, I’ve been dream­ing about that muck. I thought about it most when I wan­dered around St Pan­cras Old Church.

I was at the Bri­tish Li­brary to re­search a col­lec­tion of old news­pa­pers, which turned out to be stored on film. A dozen schol­ars at neigh­bour­ing desks were un­clip­ping and re­plac­ing their reels and run­ning them through their viewfind­ers to a so­porific whirr. Af­ter a while, I re­acted like the Flopsy Bun­nies to over­grown let­tuce. The room was very warm and quiet, the air stirred only by soft whirrs and clicks.

The news in my news­pa­pers was equally stale. I woke with a start and slipped guiltily out­side—and, in mo­ments, found my­self in the most ex­tra­or­di­nary place in Lon­don.

ST PAN­CRAS OLD CHURCH may claim with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to be one of the old­est Chris­tian sites in Lon­don. It has an al­tar stone that may be 6th cen­tury and var­i­ous tan­ta­lis­ing clues sug­gest it was ac­tive when Dio­cle­tian lifted the ban on Chris­tian­ity in 313AD. In the church­yard, about two acres broad, stands Soane’s mon­u­ment to his wife, a sort of cu­bi­cle with a roof so dis­tinc­tively el­e­gant that Gil­bert Scott knocked it off when he came to de­sign the red tele­phone box.

Wil­liam God­win and Mary Woll­stonecraft mar­ried and were buried here and, be­hind the church, a tor­tured ash, like some­thing from a Tolkien fan­tasy, grows weird and rooty through a ring of grave­stones. It’s called the Hardy Tree be­cause when the first St Pan­cras rail­way line was about to slice across the church­yard, a young Thomas Hardy was sent by his em­ployer, a Covent Gar­den ar­chi­tect, to over­see ex­huma­tions and the re­moval of head­stones.

He re­placed them in a tight ring around a small ash tree and wrote a poem in which he imag­ines the corpses squashed ‘like hu­man jam’. It’s not one of his best.

AN en­grav­ing in the church shows the grave­yard slop­ing down to the River Fleet, with some young men splash­ing about where the St Pan­cras Road now runs. Quite as amaz­ing as any­thing in Is­tan­bul or Florence and what it all needs now is a huge load of muck. The grass is patchy and bald and the soil is slimy af­ter rain. For 100 years, ur­ban swards like this must have been starved of good fer­tiliser. Ev­ery­one knows about the Great Stink, when raw sewage rot­ted on the Thames and Par­lia­ment had to be pro­rogued, but the Great Ma­nure Cri­sis of 1894, when 50,000 horses were each drop­ping 20lb of dung on the streets ev­ery day, has been en­tirely for­got­ten.

The Times pre­dicted ‘in 50 years, ev­ery street in Lon­don will be buried un­der nine feet of ma­nure’. I bet St Pan­cras and all the other church­yards, as well as parks and ev­ery­one’s back gar­dens, got a reg­u­lar fer­til­is­ing dol­lop from the hack­ney-cab horses. The in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine solved the ma­nure prob­lem just as it was about to go ex­po­nen­tial, but it also con­demned Lon­don’s grass to a cen­tury of ne­glect.

Now I have a dream to fall asleep by. I bring Tom’s trac­tor into St Pan­cras church­yard and spread an inch or so of well-rot­ted over a cor­doned-off patch. I re­seed, then move on to the next patch, leav­ing a thick, healthy thatch of grasses flour­ish­ing in my wake. Try think­ing about that the next time you can’t sleep. It works al­most as well as the news­pa­per room at the Bri­tish Li­brary.

‘Af­ter a while, I re­acted like the Flopsy Bun­nies to over­grown let­tuce’

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