Wednesday Wander – Highgate Cemetery, London

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!


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