Highgate Cemetery review
Is there a nicer place to walk than a graveyard in the rain? I think that the corpses prefer it too -- the sun isn't much fun when you're six-feet under. At least with the rain they get a little taste of the outside world as it comes seeping through the coffin top. It must be the only drink they get all week -- a thimble of dirty rainwater, filtered through the mud. It's not much of a life is it, being dead. I can't say I'm looking forward to it.
Highgate Cemetery is split into two sections -- the east and west -- and you can only get into the western half on a guided tour (I am doing that later). But I thought I'd check out the whole thing today and see if it's worth the money. Neither section is free. You have to stump up some money whichever one you choose, but you have to book the guided tour in advance which is a bit of a hassle -- it books up really quick. But here is a word of advice: be careful which train station you arrive at. Their website suggests getting off at Archway instead of Highgate because it's closer, but they neglect to tell you that you will have to struggle up Highgate Hill. And trust me -- it's a hill. A proper climb. The kind of climb that needs a sherpa. It takes about 20-25 minutes to get to the cemetery.
The East Cemetery is supposed to be the lesser one, but it still struck me as being impressive as soon as I stepped through the gate. All of the plots on the first bend are monumental, and chiseled with scenes that wouldn't look out of place in Westminster Abbey. Blocks the height of buses, carved with latin scripts and marbled columns. Take this guy here, as an example: his tomb is making me jealous. He's given himself a crowd of women across the top, all weeping and wailing like he's Casanova. But they are stone women. And he is a bone man. Whatever loving he's done in the past it is over now.
I've come across two ninety-year-olds buried in the same concrete box. Imagine that -- spending seventy-odd years with the same woman, and then all eternity on top. What do you think the symbolism of a faded name is? Because his name has worn out, all chipped and disappearing, while his wife lives on in bright white letters. That doesn't bode well, does it? The poor, downtrodden husband, still being dominated by his battle-axe wife. "In affectionate remembrance of Maude", it says, "and her loving husband" who shall remain nameless. I'm guessing that he's regretting boxing himself up in the same bedroom now.
I just got a little scare when a fox bounded over some stones ten-steps from my spot, before disappearing into the undergrowth. I guess he's not used to seeing living people here. I had another little shiver when I looked out across the woods and saw the back of someone's head. Was it a real person? Maybe it was another punter in a moment of private prayer. So I just stood there stock-still waiting for him to move. But he didn't move. I was standing like a statue, staring at another statue waiting for it to do something.
Everyone gets buried twice in here -- the first time in a concrete box, and then again in three-feet of nettles and weeds. I think the gardeners have just given up -- what's the point? It's not as if the dead will complain. In many ways they are the perfect customer. They hand over their ten grand and then you don't hear a peep out of them ever again. You've just got to make sure that you dig their hole deep enough. That is what would worry me if I was a gravedigger. I'd be digging down another twenty-feet at least, just to make sure they can't crawl out.
Most of the graves are covered in a knotted mess of nettles, weeds and deep-green ivy. But a few of the concrete cakes have got icing in top -- a vase of flowers, red roses and lilies. A few of the plaques are polished. Some of the stone has obviously received a bit of care and attention. But most of it is lying down cracked and broken and busted, and titling over to the side as subsidence drags it down. This tomb here even seems to be open. The headstone has toppled over and opened up a chasm in the pit below. It's a bit too dark to see clearly, but there appears to be some bits of dirty wood and a crinkled crisp packet down there. Maybe she got buried with her favourite snack? Or perhaps it just got washed into the grave by the rain. But that's how you get remembered, isn't it... When I leave here today I will have forgotten the names of all of the rich people, but I will still have a soft-spot for poor old Lucy Edwards -- buried in a broken box with a bag of cheesy Wotsits.
The most famous tomb in the East Cemetery is Karl Marx, but did you know that he's actually got two graves? The original one is deeper into the middle, and is worth seeking out with the map (you will be given a map when you enter). If you manage to find it then congratulations -- it is not easy. It's just a very faded slab of smashed stone, and much more in keeping with his working class roots. Another one worth seeking out is the Victorian novelist George Eliot -- who is surely too famous to suffer the nettle-strewn tomb that she's been lumbered with. I guess no one loves you when you're dead. Not enough to do the weeding anyway.
I spotted Malcolm McLaren too (that Sex Pistols bloke) and don't forget about Jeremy Beadle (from 'Beadle's About'). If anyone was going to jump out of their grave and try and scare you, then it would be him. But no... Beadle is not about. Not anymore anyway.
I like the foreign graves the best -- especially the Poles and the Italians. They seem to have a bit more love in them than ours. The best that we Brits can muster is a steady succession of "fell asleep's" and "much missed". But the other countries actually put portraits on them -- proper photos in frames so you can see what they looked like. That's how you remember someone -- by staring into their eyes, and having a conversation with their face. We Brits are too reserved for that, even in death. We just sit there staring at the mud.
Before I leave the eastern cemetery I want to pick out a lonely old grave, so I can share a moment with you. I want to find a grave that hasn't received a visitor in years. Then we can both stand there and toast his health together. Are you up for that?
Two hours later: I have just finished my guided tour of the West Cemetery, and it is easily the best cemetery I have ever been too. I think I have just found where I want to spend my dead days. And maybe some of my living ones too. The only problem is the cost... they are selling plots for forty grand in there. Maybe my kids will have to forgo their inheritance, ah well. Tough luck, kids. I will just tell them that I blew the whole lot on a hole in the ground.
The tour starts off in the chapel, which they seem to be using as a waiting room and shop. There were about twenty people in my group, which was mainly old tourists in shorts and middle-aged women. Our guide was a nice elderly guy about 60 or 70-years-old, which gave him a vested interest in the subject matter -- he was telling us all about the plot he'd just bought for him and his missus. But he was the perfect guide for a tour like this. You don't need comedy and Hollywood in a graveyard. He was slow talking and slow walking, which gave you plenty of time to enjoy the views. It was like a sunny Sunday stroll after lunch... and very pleasant it was too.
The western cemetery is a little bit smaller than the eastern half, so you get to see a fair chunk of it in the sixty-minutes that it takes to walk round. The main difference between the two is the monumental set pieces. The eastern cemetery is all graves and tombstones, but the western half has got big buildings too. He takes you up the Egyptian Avenue, for example, which is flanked by great big obelisks. Then you come to the Circle of Lebanon which is a solid ring of stone doors surrounding a mound, topped off by the biggest tree in London. If you have ever read The Lord of the Rings and can recall the Barrow-downs, then come back here in the fog and re-live the scene.
After that he takes you right inside the catacombs. This dead place is dank and black, save for a shaft of light shining through the skylight. All of the walls have coffins in the alcoves, piled up high to the ceiling. Some of the alcoves haven't even been topped off, so you can see the coffins sitting on the shelves. That means that there's just a sliver of rotting wood between you and the bones -- very spooky. If the catacomb door slammed shut on you in here then you'd have a heart attack -- no doubt about it. You'd just run around screaming until you passed out. It's a bit like a morgue I suppose -- those ones you see on the TV, where they have cupboards of corpses in the walls. Imagine that... but replace all of the shiny metal with rotting wood. And then turn out all of the lights. And add some spiders and flies and heat up the dusty air another ten degrees. Welcome to the catacombs.
Whilst he is leading you around all of these spooky places, he is busy telling you the history of the cemetery, and stopping at a few of the famous names to tell you their life story. There are not as many famous people in the West Cemetery though, compared to the eastern one, which is a bit surprising. The only people that I can remember off the top of my head are Michael Faraday, the guy who invented postage stamps, and the guy who dreamt up the Crufts Dog Show. There are also quite a few new ones. One of the most recent ones that you might remember is Alexander Litvinenko -- that Russian bloke who was poisoned by polonium. (And no, his grave doesn't glow in the dark.)
So in conclusion then, is the cemetery is worth a visit? Bearing in mind that Highgate isn't exactly in the centre of town, and will probably use up an afternoon getting there and back, would I recommend a visit? Well, the western half is easily the best cemetery I have ever been too, but I wouldn't beat yourself up too much if you can't get a tour ticket. If you want to go midweek then you'll have to book at least a week in advance, although you can just turn up at the weekend and hope for the best (you don't need to book for that). The East Cemetery is a bit more laid back... you can just pay four quid at the gate. I would definitely try for the western half, but if truth be told I would be just as happy walking around the eastern bit. But then again I am a morbid kind of bloke, who likes to spend his free-time in a cemetery.
Guest – Jean Simmonds actress film Spartacus Bob hoskins actor and Lucian Freud and many more but they won't tell you there buried there
Guest – Sorry forgot there all buried on the west side but its not on the tour
Admin – It would be nice if they let you walk around the West Cemetery as well (on your own, I mean). I wonder why they don't do that? There are only two ways to get into the West Cemetery -- with a tour guide, or an undertaker
Guest – My dad is buried on the west side so I have a pass but you still can't walk around without a guide but I do anyway I was shocked to see jean Simmons grave
Admin – I guess it must be a health and safety thing. It's pretty overgrown around there (that's what makes it so beautiful, I think). but if you trip over in that undergrowth then they might not find you for weeks. Why were you shocked, if you don't mind me asking. Was she one of your favourites?
Guest – She's in one of my favourite films Spartacus also she should have gone on to make many great films for Hollywood but Howard Hugh's the most powerful man in Hollywood ruined her career because she refused to sleep with him
Guest – Karl Marx had working class roots??? Think again. Both his parents were very well off, his father was a lawyer with his father's family owning several Moselle vineyards and his mother belonging to the wealthy Philips Electrical family.
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