It feels a bit weird going to a cemetery for a day out but I’ve been told that Highgate Cemetery is well worth a visit.
Opened in 1839 the cemetery was run as a commercial business right up until the 1970’s when it became unviable, it was then left to rot and became badly vandalised. In 1975 a charitable trust was formed to preserve the cemetery and keep it open for future generations to see.
The cemetery lies up Swains Lane and is split into two halves, the West Cemetery which is the older half and where most of the best architecture is, and the East Cemetery where you’ll find the grave of Karl Marx and a few other famous names.
To see the West Cemetery you must go on a guided tour, these run about every half an hour at weekends and no booking is required or daily during the week, these must be booked. I went on a Saturday morning and our group had about twenty people in it. Our guide gave us a brief history of the cemetery and then we set off on our tour.
As we wandered around different graves were pointed out, the architectural detail on some of them was just beautiful, one in particular was designed to look like a small version of the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park.
Walking a little further on we arrived at the entrance to the Egyptian Avenue. The gateway is flanked by a pair of large obelisks as you enter the avenue you see it’s lined with tombs that lead up to the Circle of Lebanon. We were told by our guide that when the Egyptian Avenue was first built the cemetery struggled to sell the tombs, that was until Queen Victoria visited Egypt and suddenly everything Egyptian became fashionable.
At the top of the Egyptian Avenue you enter the Circle of Lebanon, at its heart is a massive ancient cedar tree. The tombs on the inner circle are in the Egyptian style and are from the 1830’s while the tombs on the outer circle are later and are mostly in the classical style.
The grave of George Wombwell, the travelling menagerist is pointed out with Nero, his lion asleep on top of his tomb.
Further on we come to the Mausoleum of Julius Beer, a beautiful work of art. Designed by architect John Oldrid Scott and based on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The inside has been fully restored and is apparently worth seeing, unfortunately on the day I was there we weren’t able to go in.
Next to the Mausoleum are the Terrace Catacombs, a rather eerie place. The gate was unlocked and we were invited to go in, as you would expect there is no electric light in here so torches were used making it very atmospheric. Out of respect we were not allowed to take photographs here. Some of the tombs were open and you could see the old coffins, it was a strange experience. The Terrace Catacombs are part of the original cemetery buildings and date from 1838.
Another of the more well known tombs that was pointed out was that of pugilist Tom Sayers, sitting watching over his masters tomb is Lion his faithful dog.
As the tour of the West Cemetery concluded we were invited to use our tickets to go to the East Cemetery where you can wander round at your leisure, which I did.
The east side was opened in 1860 and was again run as a profitable company but as time went on and it filled up profits dried up and it became uneconomical so in 1981 the Friends of Highgate took over and it became part of the charitable trust. The cemetery still serves as a burial ground today.
The East Cemetery is probably most famous for one thing, Karl Marx’s grave, people come here from all over the world to pay their respects to him.
Other famous names in this part of the cemetery are the “pop” artist Patrick Caulfield whose memorial is quite like nothing else you’ll see here.
Jeremy Beadle the TV presenter, writer and producer is also buried here in a rather simple but quite stylish grave.
Highgate Cemetery is a fascinating place and I would highly recommend visiting, tours of the west side last for about an hour and are well worth the £12 entrance fee. If you can manage the hill head up to Highgate Village afterwards, it’s about a 10 minute walk, there’s some lovely pubs, restaurants and coffee shops up there, you’ll probably need a break after all that walking, I know I did.
To see more pictures of my visit to Highgate Cemetery go to www.pinterest.com/mrbelltravels