yasmin chopin | Residence at the Crypt
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Residence at the Crypt

St Pancras parish church crypt entrance caryatids above 1100x

Residence at the Crypt

Some of my closest friends visibly shuddered when I told them I was hoping to spend time in a crypt. Stephen’s eyes flickered like a dodgy light fitting as he repeatedly asked, 

‘But what would you do down there?’ 

I wasn’t really sure. It was more a case of simply allowing myself time and space: time to write with no interruptions, no demands, no internet, space to think in peace and solitude.

‘It’s a chance for me to just…well…be,’ I said.

The idea to apply for a residency at The Crypt, which lay beneath the parish church of St Pancras in London, emerged from a conversation I’d had some weeks earlier with Caroline Salem, a mentor and teacher of performance and dance. She’d suggested I experience different places and I’d read some months earlier about artists spending time in a crypt so I searched the internet. Google found The Crypt at St Pancras but no residency openings were advertised. The idea of sitting beside bodies below ground consumed my thoughts for days. It grew stronger and stronger. I placed my details in The Crypt’s website enquiry form and by return Anne Noble-Partridge offered me a week in The Crypt in August, free of charge. She said I could have the key. 

St Pancras parish church crypt red door 1100x

Some of the lead coffins and their contents have been removed leaving a vast area beneath the church empty, and without purpose.

‘There was some debate whether it should be a café or a night refuge but in 2002 it was decided to use this space as an art gallery. We wanted to keep it looking and feeling like a crypt. We hardly did anything to the structure, it is basically in its original state.’ Anne said.

With no permanent art collection, the gallery lies undisturbed except when artists book it for a show, or Corporates decorate the space with fake cobwebs and real candles and treat their staff to a Hallowe’en drinks party, or when actors, director and crew gather to perform and record scenes that draw inspiration from the unusual atmosphere. Events bring in good money and Anne warned that if a film company wanted to book the gallery it would take precedence over my request to use the space to write. The only stipulation was that I should not be in the crypt alone. I didn’t ask why. A lack of knowledge is sometimes a good thing. I simply assumed the answer would be ‘health and safety’. So, I had to find a writing buddy.

The Crypt red doors Yasmin Chopin caryatids St Pancras 1100x

To sit beneath a church for five consecutive days with five hundred and fifty-seven corpses, the ones who remained interred, is quite an ask. This was a job for social media. I put out an invitation through two Facebook writing groups and a number of people came back with ‘Oooh, how exciting, I would love to join you but…’. And, in the midst of the hottest English summer we have had in decades I worried that no-one would have the availability or inclination for it. After all, it’s not everyone’s idea of fun.

Two responses to my advert yielded results. LilyAnn Green Coleman got in touch, she was game for the adventure. I had met her virtually through the Open University’s on-line forum; we were on the same Masters degree course in Creative Writing though she majored in script-writing while I worked in non-fiction. Her comments on the web showed her to be an intelligent worldly-wise ballsy female, astute and to the point. She was my kind of person. I never thought I’d actually meet her one day. Over the phone I learned more about her colourful career. LilyAnn was preparing for a two-week stint at the Edinburgh fringe with her husband’s play Fan Girl but she said she would make time to spend a week in the cool air of the crypt. She is a make-up artist and wig-stylist, she writes and directs plays, coaches actors, assesses competition entries and sometimes earns real money as an arts administrator. 

‘What do you want to achieve from the residency?’ I asked.

‘I want the experience of it. I want enforced quiet time to write… where I’m not tempted to do the laundry, or the house work, or go for a walk, or do some gardening or anything like that.’

The other applicant was Ali Walsh, a new acquaintance. Ali is a medical writer who lives in Runcorn. Her day job is concerned with communicating news to doctors and the healthcare industry and although she enjoys the work there is little room for personal creativity. In her free time she lets loose with paints, pens and camera to document life as she sees it. Her motivation to observe people comes from her background as a neuroscientist. Ali constructs personal accounts of her life by collecting thoughts and ideas in paper-based journals. She has a comprehensive body of work that she intends to share one day.

‘I’m quite interested in sense and also how we perceive the world. I’d like to give it a go in the crypt. It’s an unusual experience,’ she said. ‘I’ve just filled my tenth journal and will get some decent paper and start something new.’

Satisfied to have recruited not one but two crypt buddies I contacted Anne, said we were good to go, and scheduled the subterranean sojourn in my diary.

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