It’s Wednesday, and it’s time to wander once more. This week I’m heading to a rather unusual attraction in London, a place one could describe as the ‘dead centre’ of town. This is Highgate Cemetery.
Up until the 1830’s, burial in London was a somewhat haphazard affair, with burial grounds crammed into small spaces, highly unsanitary in a large city with a growing population. In 1836, in response to the growing health crisis, Parliament passed an act creating the London Cemetery Company. Land was set aside to create seven new cemeteries, one of which was Highgate.
Opened in 1839, Highgate Cemetery was created after the acquisition of seventeen acres of private land, set on a steep hillside overlooking the city. Its elevated position encouraged the wealthy to invest, as did the effort expended on exotic formal planting and Gothic architecture. Burial rights were granted for either a limited period or in perpetuity, and the first burial there was of Elizabeth Jackson, aged 36.
The cemetery became so popular that a second site across the road from the original, known as the East Cemetery, was opened in 1860. Many famous people chose to spend their eternity among the trees, including writers, musicians and political figures.
However, after the Second World War the cemetery’s fortunes began to wane and in 1960 the London Cemetery Company was declared bankrupt. The cemetery closed and its future was uncertain, with vandalism and desecration damaging some of the graves. In 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed, work began on repairing and restoring the cemetery, and it was opened to the public once more.
Nowadays you can take tours of the West Cemetery, wandering among the Victorian graves. I went this summer past, and could have spend literally hours there just reading the inscriptions, stories told of lives lived and families intertwined.
However, the West Cemetery can only be viewed by taking a tour, so we booked in and were taken around by an affable and entertaining volunteer, who clearly loved his job. The tour took just over an hour and included the Egyptian Avenue, a passageway containing sixteen vaults accessed by an imposing Egyptian style entrance.
We also visited the Circle of Lebanon, a circular structure of thirty-two vaults created by excavating earth around an ancient Cedar of Lebanon, which had been planted when the grounds belonged to a private house.
The tree towers above the vaults and is a fantastic sight to see, testament to the imagination of the cemetery designers.
Once the tour was finished we went across to the East Cemetery, where you can, for a small entrance fee, wander freely among the graves. (If you take the tour of the West Cemetery, entrance to the East Cemetery is included). There are many famous names there, including George Eliot, Malcolm Maclaren and Douglas Adams. One of the fascinating things about the cemetery is the sheer creative range of funerary architecture, said to be some of the finest in the country. There are graves with faithful hounds, lions, movie reels and even a grand piano, all final statements of those they memorialise, set forever in stone. And each grave holds a story, a life lived.
The cemetery now faces a new threat. Its romantic overgrown look is wonderful for photographs and meandering walks, but the trees and ivy that have sprung up on and around the tombstones are threatening to clog the cemetery entirely, blocking the once fantastic views of the city skyline and damaging some of the graves. There are discussions underway of how best to manage this without losing the atmosphere of the place. For Highgate is still a working cemetery, and burials still take place there. One of the more recent high profile ones is that of the late, wonderful George Michael, who lived only a short walk away. After our tour we ventured up into Highgate village and stood in front of his house, marvelling at the makeshift memorial that had sprung up to the much-loved singer after his untimely death. The photo below is only a fraction of what’s there – as his grave is in a private part of the cemetery, it was to his house that fans came to pay their last respects.
I realise we are only a day out from Halloween, and so perhaps this was an appropriate wander for this week. However, Highgate is not a spooky place – at least, not during the daytime. It is atmospheric, a little melancholy, and certainly peaceful – I enjoyed my visit there immensely.
Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!
If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJ, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.
I really enjoyed this wander with you Helen!
Thanks, Ritu – it was such an interesting place 🙂
I wish my family were Interested too so we could all go!
Oh, Ritu, I hope you do get to go there – even if you go by yourself there is so much to see 🙂
One day Helen!!!!
That is one of those places I have always meant to visit. And this is the third time Highgate has cropped up this week…
Ooh, third time is the charm, as they say. I would highly recommend it, Sue – it’s a marvellous place 🙂
I think it is the tour that has put me off so far…
The tour was really interesting, and is the only way to see the West cemetery now. Apparently it’s different depending on which guide you get, as they each have their favourite stories to tell. And you can potter around the East Cemetery to your hearts content 🙂
I’ll have to get there one of these days. 🙂
I hope you do! Let me know if you do, I might be able to wander up as well 🙂
I will, Helen 🙂
Seems like an appropriate wander on November 1st.
It wasn’t planned, but I’m glad it worked out that way 🙂
What a fascinating place!
It really was – I could have stayed there for days just reading the headstones 🙂
Parks, Promenades and Cemeteries… we have a lot to thank the Victorians for…
Yes, they weren’t all bad 🙂
Not all bad…
Thanks for the wander I really enjoyed this Helen.
Thanks, Marjorie – it was such an interesting place to visit 🙂 Hope all is well and the book is going strong!
I used to live just across the road from the cemetery and spent many a sunny Sunday afternoon snoozing among the gravestones after a picnic. I didn’t realise it had become a paying attraction. In the 1980s it was a fun place to go, like a park but more interesting.
Lucky you to have lived in such an interesting place – it has such a village atmosphere up there and I really enjoyed visiting. It’s not hugely expensive to take the tour, and as far as I know the money goes towards the conservation and restoration of the cemetery.
I was a student so didn’t participate much in the village atmosphere as you ca imagine, but the cemetery was something else. At the weekends it was always full of families picnicking, like Hyde Park.
That’s lovely 🙂 It would be a nice place for a picnic, very peaceful
It was. A bit noisy though sometimes 🙂
I love Highgate Cemetery. It’s one of the settings for my novel The Sleeping Angel. You’ve taken some marvellous photographs. Like you, I also went on a guided tour of the West Cemetery. It sounds like we might have had the same tour guide.
It’s a fabulous place, isn’t it? Not surprised you used it as a setting in a book, the place is just teeming with stories 🙂 And I really enjoyed the tour, too x
Reblogged this on Stuart France.
Lovely peaceful place.
It really was 🙂
Reblogged this on anita dawes and jaye marie.
Thank you for sharing!
Highgate Cemetery is a wonderful place for a wander…but they will have to tame that ivy somehow!
They certainly will – it was taking over! 🙂
I love ivy, and have a lot of it in my garden, but you do have to show it whose boss!
Definitely! I’m the same, just love it but it does take over if left unmanaged 🙂
I so enjoyed reading this. I love cemeteries for the same reasons as you—truly beautiful memorials to people and their lives. So much to see and learn. Thank you for sharing. xx
Thanks Louise – so glad you enjoyed it 🙂 Hope all is well with you, I’ve not been around much to visit blogs of late, though I see your book is now up for pre-order – how exciting! 🙂
I so enjoyed wandering with you, Helen. Excellent post. The piano… who would have known? Thank you!
Thank you, Jennie – glad you came to wander 🙂 I really liked the piano as well – there were some wonderfully imaginative gravestones!
My pleasure, Helen. Yes, there were many imaginative gravestones. Looking forward to wandering with you on Wednesday’s. 🙂
Thanks, Jennie 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the gravestones – I might share a few more I didn’t manage to fit into the post. And I do try to wander most Wednesdays, so am very pleased you’ll be coming along too 🙂
Ooo, that will be wonderful. Looking forward to it!
What a great tour. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Thanks, Craig – it ws a fabulous place, I took loads of photos, as you can imagine 🙂 Stories for days…
This is a place I would love to visit.
I think you’d really enjoy it 🙂
Reblogged this on Die Erste Eslarner Zeitung – Aus und über Eslarn, sowie die bayerisch-tschechische Region!.
Thank you very much for this wander. Have a nice weekend. 😉 Michael
Thank you for sharing, Michael! Wishing you a happy weekend too 🙂
Wonderful! I’ve always meant to visit this cemetery but somehow have never got around to it. Now I must definitely go.
Oh, I hope you do – it’s just such a fascinating place! And great for photos, too 🙂
Do you book up tours online in advance, or just when you get there?
I believe you can book online for yours during the week, but the weekend ones are first come first served, and go on sale around 10:30am. We had no trouble getting on the next one when we showed up, and the tour price includes entry to the East cemetery, so if you do have to wait you can go there instead 🙂
Thanks for the info.
You’re very welcome, hope you get there for a visit! The link for the website is https://highgatecemetery.org/ 🙂
Pingback: Wednesday Wandering… | Journey To Ambeth