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…
I have been living in London for around eight years now, and somehow, without realising it, I have fallen out of wonder with it. How can that be? London is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, full of history, great architecture and an absolute wealth of stories. But after years of commuting to the office, cramming onto trains and buses with millions of others, and collapsing gratefully at home at the end of the working week, I have forgotten how wonderful it is to get out and explore.
And yet here I am, urging you to explore all these wonderful locations around the world as you read the novels inspired by them, and yet I can’t get myself away from the computer and into the alleys and towpaths of this magnificent city on my doorstep.
So, I am determined to do something about it. I need to get reading some novels set in London and lace up my walking shoes.
Having not read a novel set in London for some time I decided to start my London project by taking advantage of a handy podcast provided by the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian is marking 200 years since the birth of Charles Dickens with a whole lot of interesting content, including three podcasts you can download with Dickens related walking tours. The first one takes us into parts of London frequented by Oliver Twist.
So, armed with iPod (downloaded with said podcast and interactive map) and a printout of a rather funky hand-drawn style map, also provided on the Guardian website, I set off. I was hugely excited…I hadn’t done anything like this in London for such a long time.
It was only when I got to the starting point of the tour (near Angel Islington where Oliver would have arrived after walking several days from his workhouse in the country to London) that I realised I hardly had any battery left on my iPod. What a rookie mistake! The whole thing would fall apart without that marvel of Apple technology. All I could do was set off and hope for the best..
It’s just so cool (not geeky at all, I assure you) to walk the streets, passing fast food places, supermarkets and cash machines, while you have someone whispering stories in your ear of life in 19th century London. Everyone else might be struggling with their shopping, while you are learning that in this very spot Oliver met the Artful Dodger, or was brought before the cruel magistrate Mr Fang. I was taken down alleyways, past two hundred year old pubs and outside buildings, some of which I had walked past many times before, with no idea of their significance. I mean I was in complete ignorance that a post office I have lined up at many times was actually the site where young boys were made to walk on a huge treadmill as part of correctional therapy. (Ironically, the area is called ‘Mount Pleasant!)
The experience wasn’t perfect. Sometimes the directions weren’t entirely clear and I had to back track a few times, which was more stressful than it should have been because I could see the battery life on the iPod slipping away, but all in all, it was a terrific way to spend a couple of hours on a grey, threatening-to-rain kind of afternoon.
I finished up wishing I had time to have a drink in one of the wonderful old pubs on the journey, but feeling worldly and wise with a little bit of that love of London rekindled. Here’s to many more afternoons of wandering…
By the way – I finished with three percent of battery life to spare. Phew!
PS. The Guardian has released its second podcast which takes you to Dickens locations in Rochester, Kent and in part three, it’s back to London for sites relating to David Copperfield. That’s my next mission.
What about you and where you live? Have you ever explored your town or city through a locally set novel? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.