This weekend London finally got the hint that winter is no longer welcome, and I packed away my thermals and thick socks and dug out my sandals and strappy sundresses, from the depths of my wardrobe. Nick & I had some very special parental visitors this weekend and faced the typical London-problem of WHAT TO DO. Not because there isn’t any choice, but because the choice is staggeringly overwhelming. We decided it would be nice to do a London-first with them, and consulted our groaning list of places in London we’ve been meaning to visit (but then just go to the doggy swimming pool on Hampstead Heath like we do every weekend). Top of that list was Highgate Cemetery. I’ve been desperate to visit for years and have no idea how it’s alluded me, especially as I now live in North London and a 10 minute bus ride away. Nick and I have both recently read Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, in which Highgate Cemetery is basically a character in it’s own right. I can’t say I loved the book (speaking of which, does anyone know why Raven Girl isn’t on the kindle/seems so hard to get hold of?) but I did fall in love with the descriptions of this luscious, secret land within London.
It might seem like an odd choice, to spend a glorious sunny day in a graveyard, but banish these thoughts from your mind! The cemetery comes to life in summer, as it hides beneath lush canopies of trees and greenery, the colours providing a perfect juxtaposition to the grey-grey-graves. You feel so protected from the rest of London, and there is definitely an enchanting feeling of stepping into somewhere entirely different as the hustle & bustle of Highgate village suddenly vanishes. I am keen to go back and compare with a visit in winter, I imagine with gnarled tree branches tapping at you as you walk around and a nice dose of swirly mist, it’s a completely different atmosphere again.
It also may feel slightly morbid to go to a cemetery at all… However I think it’s actually really beautiful that it is still being visited and enjoyed in the modern day. Everyone I observed visiting was respectful and curious and peaceful as they pottered around, reading about those who have passed over and considering their own mortality. It’s never going to be a bad thing to set aside obsessive thoughts about emails, holidays, work stress etc for a moment and just be grateful to be the person looking at the grave, not inside it.
A quick potted history for those who may think Highgate-what? The original cemetery was created in 1839, in order to cope with the number of deaths in London and provide an alternative to undignified mass-burials that had previously been the only option. Highgate was one of seven large, modern cemeteries, known as the Magnificent Seven which were dotted around central London, in places that apparently in those days would have been the equivalent of travelling way out into the countryside! The design was inspired by en-vogue garden cemeteries such as the Père Lachaise in Paris, and created by architect Stephen Geary. Over time, the cemetery attracted it’s fair share of iconic and famous graves; including Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, George Eliot (Mary Ann Cross), Patrick Caulfield, Lucian Freud, Michael Faraday and Charles Cruft (founder of Crufts). I didn’t realise, but people could still be buried there today (at a price tag!) and we had an awkward moment when we stumbled across Jeremy Beadles grave and Nick’s dad asked in a baffled voice “Jeremy Beadle died?!”. What a way to find out.
The cemetery is split in two. The East and the West cemetery. The East cemetery is where Karl Marx is buried, and visitors are free to roam freely. There is a £4 entrance fee, which gives you full access to the 15+ acres of incredible heritage and history. We spent about an hour and a half exploring and probably didn’t even come close to properly seeing half of it! So set yourself an entire day aside if you plan to visit, and maybe wait until slightly less melt-into-a-puddle heat as that is definitely what defeated us in the end. Graves extend for miles in the distance and are in row after jaunty angled row, as far as the eye can see. Snaking paths vanish behind huge stone angels, cherubs, arches and vaults. The graves vary from the most decrepit; where the engraving is barely readable and there clearly hasn’t been a fresh flower laid in decades, right up to the most modern with decadent gold leaf lettering and heaps of fresh posies. It’s also fascinating to see what people choose to have engraved in memory of their loved ones, and even recreated out of stone in some cases; there are a fair few cat and dog creations… as well as a few real life cats lolling around and making a bed for themselves amongst the stone slabs!
In the East Highgate Cemetery, you are visiting the nature as much as the graves and architecture. In the 60s and 70s the Cemetery was desperately running short of money, and during this period it descended into rack and ruin. Nature took a devastating grip on the cemetery and you can still find many graves with vast tree roots cracking them in half or entirely covered in moss and slime. These were some of my favourites as they look like there is certainly about to be a bony hand jutting out at any moment! Luckily in 1975 “Friends of Highgate Cemetery” was formed and they work tirelessly to fundraise and restore parts of the cemetery to their former glory. Which takes me nicely on to the West Cemetery…
The West Cemetery isn’t publicly accessible unless with a Highgate Cemetery Guide. Tours run every hour, but due to size limitations, they do sell out quickly. This isn’t clear on their website, so we casually rocked up at 2pm expecting to get straight in on a tour, but instead had to buy tickets for the 4pm tour and hang about until then. My advise is definitely head straight to the chapel outside the West Cemetery and buy your tour tickets before you do ANYTHING else. Also, for goodness sake, DO THE TOUR! It’s £12, which I remember previously thinking was a little steep… but it is more than value for money. Firstly, you then get free access to the East Cemetery (saving you £4, making the tour more like £8) but also every single penny of it goes towards vital restoration projects. The cemetery is such a vital part of London’s past, and due to the decades of neglect followed by it being a target for some abhorrent vandalism, there is a desperate need to raise money and restore graves, vaults and mausoleums to their former glory and intended use.
The tour is absolutely brilliant. Firstly, you get to step into a part of London that barely anyone else has seen! And it certainly has that rare untouched crackle in the air. All the really special parts of the cemetery exist on this side, such as the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon which have unique engraved tombs, family vaults and winding paths built into hillsides. In the Egyptian avenue, even the keyholes to each crypt are upside down, to represent a life extinguished. Our tour guide was the perfect mix of passionate, bright, personable and a wicked story teller. Over the course of an hour we learnt so much about Victorian symbols of death, the trends in under ground/over ground/cremation/burial types and walked the length and breadth of the West Cemetery. Our guide also took us to visit some of the more fascinating residents, such as Alexander Litvineko, Michael Faraday and George Wombwell. I really recommend you click the link and read about ole Wombwell, as he was such a fascinating character! A sort of early Alan Sugar who made money from displaying his menagerie of exotic creatures in pubs and bars around the London docklands. His menagerie grew and became a touring exhibition, and this man must have been the worlds best spin doctor because despite one of his lions escaping and eating two people AND a kangaroo escaping so some poor woman woke up with a it in bed with her (!) he was still regarded as some sort of hero.
I won’t spoil it by telling you anymore of the tales, as you really should go and hear them first hand. Every tour is slightly different so you can keep going again and again, and you know what? I certainly will. I haven’t felt so inspired and creatively affected by somewhere in a very, very long time. I’ve already started making notes for a ghost story set in the cemetery in the 70s, and can’t stop thinking about it! I’m also very keen to get involved in the cemetery on a voluntary basis. They are always looking for volunteers to do gardening, cleaning, archiving or to become a “friend of Highgate Cemetery”.
Certainly the weirdest thing I saw on my day out and about was this. On one grave there was a dead pigeon, perfectly laid out in the centre as if it had been placed there as a sacrifice. Enough to send a cold shiver down your spine on a blisteringly hot day…
/ If you liked this, you might like my Milner Fields post. A real life Yorkshire ghost house!