London: Highgate Cemetery

I’ve been to Highgate’s East Cemetery quite a few times over the years, since Marcus’s grandmother and great-grandmother are buried there, but neither of us had ever been to the West Cemetery. The guided tour only policy coupled with a £14 entry fee had put us off a bit, not to mention that the tours typically booked up in advance, and visiting the cemetery is usually more of an impromptu affair for us. However, Highgate have recently opened the West Cemetery for pre-booked, self-guided visits, and I was definitely keen to take advantage, especially as museums hadn’t reopened yet at that point, so I booked us a couple of slots on a day in May that looked to be slightly less crappy than the rest (still kind of crappy though. What awful weather for May!). Admission for a self-guided visit is £10, which galls me a bit, since I feel that cemeteries should be free, but if this meant that they’d be able to do more upkeep than the other Magnificent Seven, I wasn’t going to begrudge them the money (too much).

  

We turned up at around the same time a guided tour was getting started, so we set off pretty quickly to avoid getting stuck behind them. You must keep to the footpaths, as the grassy areas are pretty unkempt and apparently have random sinkholes (and you can probably guess what’s at the bottom of those sinkholes), but they’ve put gravel paths in to lead you to famous graves that aren’t on the main paths, so you won’t miss anything major. And with Highgate being probably the most famous cemetery in London and located in an extremely wealthy area, there’s quite a lot of famous people buried here. They don’t advertise the graves of more recent burials, so your guess where George Michael is buried is as good as mine, but there are plenty of historical ones to look out for. Like Michael Faraday, Lucian Freud, and the Rossetti family grave where Dante Gabriel Rossetti famously buried his unpublished poems with Lizzie Siddal and then later changed his mind and had the poems dug up again (this would seem to imply that Lizzie Siddal is buried there too, but her name isn’t listed anywhere that I could see. Poor Lizzie doesn’t even merit an entry, unless she went full zombie when they dug up the poems and just wandered off somewhere to eat brains, in which case I can understand why Highgate would want to keep that quiet).

  

Highgate is also the final resting place of people whose names aren’t well known today, but clearly had A LOT of money in the Victorian era. There are some huge tombs in here, particularly the one belonging to Julius Beer, who owned The Observer (above left). I would say that Highgate’s West Cemetery has more character than the East (it’s also older, having opened in 1839 vs. 1856), and is probably more atmospheric too. It is not quite as derelict as the other Magnificent Seven (so that entry fee is going somewhere) but is still significantly overgrown, and there’s a lot of trees and overhanging vegetation, which really makes it a good creepy Victorian cemetery experience.

 

The Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon are probably the most famous parts of the cemetery, and a volunteer was waiting nearby to tell us all about them if we wanted (she wasn’t at all pushy, which I appreciated). The Egyptian Avenue is a series of single-family vaults each containing twelve coffins, decorated with Ancient Egyptian motifs, which were very fashionable in the late Victorian era. It was originally roofed over, but people thought that made it too dark, so they removed the roof. There are a lot of overhanging trees, so it is pretty dark again today, and I personally think it’s lovely. The Circle of Lebanon is pretty fancy too (and impossible to photograph in its entirety at ground level), with steps leading out of the circular wall of tombs at various places to another layer of graves above.

  

My absolute favourite grave in the cemetery is hands down the sad/sleepy lion laying atop the grave of the owner of a menagerie (knowing what I know about Victorian circuses, I suspect the menagerie owner probably abused the crap out of a number of lions and other animals, so it’s no wonder the lion looks sad). A close second was the otherwise nondescript grave that contained the epitaph (amongst other, much nicer ones) “He meant well.” I interpreted that as a passive aggressive insult to someone they couldn’t really say anything nice about, and it genuinely made me laugh out loud for a perhaps inappropriate amount of time, considering where we were.

 

Having spent quite a lot of time exploring the West Cemetery, we headed over to the East Cemetery so Marcus could tidy up his grandma’s grave (as you can probably see, Highgate only does selective landscaping, so her grave ends up pretty overgrown every spring). Family members get a special card that allows them free entry, but if you are just visiting, you will need to pay. However, buying a ticket to the West Cemetery gives you free entry to the East Cemetery, so you should absolutely visit both! Although we’d been here many times, we’d never actually been given a map before (I guess because we hadn’t paid to get in), so it was nice to be able to hunt down some more famous graves.

 

Quite a few of them we’d already seen, particularly Karl Marx, since he’s practically staring us down when we visit Marcus’s grandma, and also Douglas Adams, Jeremy Beadle, and the iconic DEAD grave (see below), but this gave us an opportunity to wander down some pathways we hadn’t explored before and see Karl Marx’s original grave, which is a lot more subtle than the giant statue he has these days (and one would think more fitting for a communist, but I guess not, if Lenin’s tomb is anything to go by). There are also a weird number of other communists buried around Karl Marx (if having “comrade” written on their graves is anything to go by), which I have to think is intentional and shows a disturbing amount of dedication to the cause.

 

We spent about two and a half hours between the two cemeteries, and definitely could have spent longer, but rush hour was approaching and we wanted to get home. Having seen it, I do feel slightly better about the admission fee, because Highgate West Cemetery really is a special place, and has probably slightly edged out Brompton in my affections (though I do retain a soft spot for Brompton because of my brief period volunteering there with Arthur, the completely delightful former head of the Friends who sadly recently passed away) amongst the Magnificent Seven. Would definitely recommend visiting! The friendliness of the volunteers were encountered has given me some hope that the tours worth doing, but I’ve been on enough bad cemetery tours to have been scared off them a bit, so the self-guided visit was perfect for a first visit.

10 comments

  1. What impresses me about visiting old cemeteries is when I find big graves with six or seven generations of the same family all buried together, having presumably all lived in the same town. Not like my family, where more or less every generation seems to have gone off and lived somewhere else.

    1. My family have all lived in the same place since my great-grandparents first came over to the US in the 1910s, so we’re not quite up to six generations yet, but there are certainly three generations of my family all buried together. I’m the only one who doesn’t still live there!

    1. You’ve got great photos! Much nicer than mine. I just read your post about cameras – I haven’t owned a digital camera in over a decade, so mine are only with my phone, but it’s got a decent camera on it for outdoor photos. Indoor ones don’t seem to come out quite as nicely, but they do the job.

    1. I like a good cemetery tour too, but most of the cemetery tours I’ve been on don’t fit that description. Glad you finally read A Tomb with a View! I read it last year, so I can’t remember exactly what he said about Highgate, and I forgot to refresh my memory before I went, so I probably wasn’t looking out for the right things.

  2. Always wanted to visit Highgate as like you we love a wander around an interesting cemetery. They often give you a real insight into the town or village that you are in. Highgate looks even more interesting now as I had no idea so many famous names were there.

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