Highgate Cemetery, London

Sunday, 5 July 2015

A couple of weeks back I made my first visit to Highgate Cemetery - a day out some might characterise as a little morbid perhaps, but was actually thoroughly interesting. Highgate is resting place for the likes of writer Douglas Adams (who has a remarkably modest gravestone - especially surrounded by giant Victorian tombs - covered in pens left by fans), painter Patrick Caulfield (whose headstone includes the word 'DEAD' cut out of it), author George Eliot, Karl Marx, the family of Charles Dickens, cinematography innovator William Friese-Greene, and political activist and social justice campaigner Claudia Jones. We took a tour of the West Cemetery with volunteer guide Vivienne, who was incredibly engaging, witty and knowledgeable.

Vivienne took us around the grounds, showing us notable people and interesting grave details, such as the 'empty chair' grave symbolising a life left unexpectedly and the leaving-behind of worldly possessions. The bizarre Egyptian Avenue was fascinating, built according to the fashionable interest in all things Egyptian and the Egyptians' approach to death - but apparently the vaults were still a hard sell, possibly due to them being viewed as too 'pagan' looking. The Avenue leads onto the Circle of Lebanon, excavated below ground level with the towering Cedar tree in the centre. We also visited the catacombs to peek at intricate lead-lined coffins (some of which held people who were only supposed to be there temporarily, but whose relatives never returned for them).

The famous Beer mausoleum was modelled on the building which gave us the word 'mausoleum' - the Tomb of Mausolus in Halicarnassus, identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was one of the few elements of the cemetery to survive the vandalism of the 1960s relatively unscathed due to its heavy locked doors. However rocks thrown through the glass windows left the structure open to birds and resulted in several feet of debris and droppings - which had to be cleaned out through the top windows as the doors were still locked! Though the mausoleum remains locked currently, looking through the front windows gives you a glimpse of the beautiful mosaic and the statue of the Beers' eight year old daughter, for whom the mausoleum was built, carried by an angel. Other highlights of the tour were the grave of legendary Victorian bare knuckle boxer Tom Sayers, guarded by his chief mourner - his dog, Lion - and the austere headstone erected for poor bookbinder turned influential scientist Michael Faraday (whose life and discoveries are well worth reading about).

Vivienne stopped us not far from the chapel and pointed out a space between gravestones, telling us about the women of Highgate Penitentiary, a 'correctional' or 'reformation' facility for 'fallen women' - mainly young girls and teenagers - who had been selling sex on the streets in order to support themselves and often their families, and on whom the blame for their situation and 'sin' was usually placed. Here, it is suspected that ten women from the Penitentiary are buried, the youngest only twelve, who have remained unrecognised even by a headstone or marker for over a hundred years. It is hoped that these women, looked down upon and ignored by society, will now be given the recognition and honour which the others buried in the cemetery received. Whilst the grounds are beautiful and the tombs impressive, the reminder that it's not just those in the cemetery who are famous, rich or what society deemed 'moral' that are deserving of remembrance was something I thought very important; a great note to end the tour on.

FIND HIGHGATE CEMETERY AT: Highgate Cemetery, Swain's Lane, London N6 6PJ

1 comment:

  1. Ah what a lovely morbid day out, nothing better! Great photos! xxxxx