Thursday, September 6, 2012

Highgate Cemetery, 28th August

I do rather like cemeteries, especially the old, grand ones. They’re peaceful and often hold beautiful and interesting sculptures. When I was in New York I went to the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, home to the remains of Bill the Butcher amongst other notable figures. So when I read about Highgate Cemetery, it was a no-brainer that I would want to go.

Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward to just pop along any time you like. Access, at least to the West side is restricted to being part of a tour (with fee) only, and you have to pay to enter the East side as well, which put me off for a while. But, both sides, I think, are worth the money, and doing the West side as part of a tour is probably a lot more informative and entertaining than wandering around on your own trying to make sense of it.

Westside graves
Firstly, the place is huge. There are 17 acres of graveyard on the West Side and almost as much on the East. And the Victorians did not waste this space. The graves are absolutely crammed in, creating some areas which are inaccessible as they are so overgrown and have so little space around them. The place is so big that our guide (a very knowledgeably, friendly but of course, slightly eccentric lady) said that even she made new discoveries such as a little pig statue by a grave.

The tour of course takes you around the cemetery and points out the graves of well-known people or those with stories connected to them, for example the very first person to be interred there. She also explained what various features of graves mean – the fact that a lot of decorations are related to the person’s career or interests, and that they’re often depicted upside down because the deceased has no need of them anymore. A broken column symbolises a life cut short, and an angel with her arms open is beckoning the deceased towards heaven. A lot of the graves have just plain headstones, but those with more money went in for elaborate carvings and statues. It made me feel like I was walking around the backyard of the Addams Family.

No more so than when we went into the catacombs. It was cold and dim in there and while some of the catacombs had concrete over their fronts with inscriptions about who lay within, some of them had had only glass fronts, long since broken, and the slightly decaying coffins were clearly visible. It definitely gave you a creepy thrill.

Egyptian Avenue
Equally as impressive was the Egyptian Avenue. Right in the middle of the cemetery (I use the term ‘middle’ loosely, as I had no idea of my bearings) was a huge entrance, styled, well, Egyptian-style. I felt like I was in a scene from Tomb Raider, what with the obelisks and ornate columns either side of the ‘crypt’ and the feeling that anything could be lurking inside.

The tour is supposed to last an hour, but it actually spilled quite a lot over that, and even then our guide had to reel off a bunch of graves we didn’t have time to get to or were inaccessible at the moment. All the places on the tour were booked – you must book ahead if you go in the week and woe betide you if you don’t! Two people had turned up, traveled all the way from Kent to get a spot, but we were full and there was no changing anyone’s mind about it! On the weekends, you just have to turn up and hope you get on a tour without waiting around for too long. They're clearly popular.

Photos are allowed in the main, but there were some instances when it’s not permitted – sometimes families request that photos not be taken, as in the case of Litvinenko who is buried there, or the grand mausoleum that we peeked in which ‘houses’ Julius Beer and his descendants. Julius Beer was a Jew who technically shouldn’t be buried in consecrated ground but who allegedly converted on his death bed. He owned the Observer and had a lot of money so I imagine not too many people objected, even when his mausoleum, which is the biggest in the cemetery, blocked the sightline over the other graves. This has recently been restored and is quite incredible inside. Its ceiling wouldn’t look out of place in a grand house or church. 

Eastside graves
After the hour and a quarter or so that we spent in the Westside, we were a little fatigued. But we wanted to check out the East side as well. The inhabitants of this side are more varied than the West - none of that consecrated business over here. (In fact, people who wanted to be buried in Highgate but weren't of the correct religious persuasion would be driven in to Highgate West and then transported via a lift and tunnel to the other side where they were allowed.) We didn’t really give this side the attention it probably deserves as we were flagging. Instead we just used the map we’d bought to locate the people we were really interested in, looked at those graves and then skedaddled. Here are some of their graves.

Karl Marx's grave

Douglas Adams's grave

Richard 'Stoney' Smith's grave - inventor of Hovis

George Eliot's grave

I liked this grave but though I assumed he was a partner
at Penguin, I can find no evidence supporting that

1 comment:

  1. Have you been to the cemeteries in Paris? Equally beautiful and serene! xo


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