It was one of those glorious Thomas Hardy “summer face and winter constitution” type days last Sunday, just begging me to get out and explore some small part of London I had never been.
So after hoisting myself off the comfort of my West London underfloor heating I braved the whims of weekend public transport to head north to a place I’ve been promising myself I’d go for, oh, I don’t know, about a thousand years – Highgate Cemetery.
Perhaps most famous for being the final resting place of legendary philosopher Karl Marx, the cemetery has a peculiar fascination for Londoners (and those tourists willing to explore beyond the more central haunts of Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square), who are attracted to the famous names buried there, as well as its eerie, and often beautiful, Gothic funerary architecture.
With London’s inner-city cemeteries in a bad state in the 1830s — overcrowded and hazardous, with bodies sometimes buried in the spaces in between houses and taverns (think decaying matter leeching into the water supply and causing disease epidemics) — the powers that be decided upon the grand plan of opening seven new cemeteries on the outskirts of London. Highgate was one of them.
The cemetery is divided into two parts. In the East, you can wander around freely after paying a small entrance fee, but in the West (the oldest part), you must take a guided tour. I loved getting all the gory stories and historical know-how from our knowledgeable guide, but it is always a little frustrating to have to limit your photo taking to snatches here and there so you can keep up with the group and to stifle your desire to wander off and do your own thing. Such exploration is strictly forbidden in this part of the cemetery on safety and conservation grounds; much of it is overgrown, crumbling, and laced with sharp spikes of ironmongery amongst the undergrowth – a fashion much favoured by Victorian grave-designers it seems.
Other things I learned…
– It’s actually really challenging to find someone specific in a cemetery such as this. There are A LOT of graves here, mostly crowded haphazardly amongst the muddy paths and undergrowth. And there’s only so long you can concentrate hard enough on reading the fading inscriptions before your eyes start glazing over with the effort. In the East cemetery you are provided with a map of sorts, but unless your grave of interest is on the actual path, you will need a fair bit of time to find it.
Take a gander at this video as world traveler Vic Stefanu walks through some the less accessible areas of the cemetery. You only need to watch the first minute or so to get the idea, though it does make strangely compelling (almost meditative) viewing if you carry on. Note that Vic is doing this on what looks like a fine and sunny day; the cold, mud and general fear of slippage during my visit made me much less inclined to explore too far off the standard routes.
– Someone lives in a glass house in the cemetery. Read more here – it’s a whole story in itself, with an amazing coincidence at the end.
– Victorian surgeon Robert Liston was known as “the fastest knife in the West End”, renowned for his ability to amputate a limb (without anaesthetic, naturally) in 28 seconds.
– In conversation, I find it almost impossible to say “Highgate Cemetery”, for some reason it always comes out as “Highgate Ceremony” – bizarre!
– The cemetery (or ceremony if you like) was originally a profit-making, commercial operation run by the London Cemetery Company. It was initially a great success, but come the end of the Victorian era people were less keen to spend big money on the business of mourning and by the 1930s it began to fall into disrepair. The company declared bankruptcy in 1960 and the gates were eventually shut. In 1975 the Friends of Highgate Cemetery came to the rescue and started the massive task of clearing the undergrowth and repairing some of the memorials. That work continues today and you don’t begrudge having to pay an entrance or guided tour fee so much when you know this is where the money goes. Read more about the history here.
– There are now around 170,000 people buried at Highgate, but amazingly you can still score a spot for yourself, as long as you have the money and you are ready to use it immediately (you have to be over 80 or terminally ill if you want to book it in advance). I haven’t been able to find a price list!
But what does all this have to do with things literary?
Well there are, inevitably, some literary-type resting places here. I managed to track down George Eliot, Douglas Adams and Beryl Bainbridge (photos below) and I particularly liked this gravestone by one avid reader, Jim Horn – apparently NOT a partner at Penguin, but obviously a great admirer.
What to read before you go…
And as with most things Packabook there is some fitting fiction to inspire you to visit Highgate for yourself.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier (who I am a little in love with right now, of which I will write more about in a future post). Inspired by a trip to the cemetery, Chevalier began doing some volunteer work to get to know the graveyard better. She then wrote a novel set at the very end of Victorian times in which two families, with conflicting views on the new modern era, get to know each other because their loved ones are buried in adjacent graves. I enjoyed reading what she had to say about Highgate on her blog.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (she of The Time Traveler’s Wife fame). Niffenegger also became a volunteer tour guide at Highgate and the result was this novel built around 20-year old American twins who have inherited their aunt’s beautiful flat which overlooks the cemetery (you will see some of the stunning residences in the area yourself as you walk up the hill to the graveyard gates). But the inheritance comes with conditions, and while Aunt Elspeth may be dead, she doesn’t seem too keen to leave the women to their own devices.
There’s lots about Highgate and her volunteering exploits in this radio interview with Niffenegger, while in this video (unfortunately not brilliant quality) the two writers talk about how they met while doing their bit for the cause.
I am most pleased with myself for heading out into the cold for my short bout of Highgate hijinks and highly recommend it as an item on your London itinerary should you be visiting this fair city anytime soon. Don’t worry, there’s no rush, none of the Highgate residents are going anywhere!
I will leave you with my two favorite graves of the day…