One of the great things I enjoy doing is getting on a bus I’ve never been on and seeing where it goes. Disembarking at Kentish Town Station, I nervously hopped on the 214 and placed myself in the hands of Transport for London, trusting them to take me to one of the most revered places in the cemetery world. Slightly panicked, I got off a stop too early, right outside John Betjeman’s childhood home. Being a fan of his, and having watched Metroland the day before, I took this as a good omen.
There’s a byword for Cemeteries in London. Mention this word and everyone will associate it with the stereotypical gothic fairytale version of a Cemetery. You know it and I know it, as this word is Highgate.
According to Hugh Mellor’s excellent London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer, ‘although not the oldest or the biggest of London’s cemeteries, it is by far the best known and probably the most visited.’ The work that the Friends of Highgate have performed here have reversed the fortunes of this landmark after years of neglect, black magic and the formidable reclamation Mother Nature attempts on the stones and monuments whittled from her soil: repurposed to commemorate people who are no more.
I visited Highgate with my friend Will Cudmore, who’d long wanted to come on one of my cemetery tours. Handily, he lived nearby so we met beforehand for a cheeky pint at the superb Flask pub on Highgate Hill. Suitably imbibed, we arrived to find that the western side (aka, the part most people want to see) was shut as it is only available to view by guided tour on a Wednesday. This was a Friday, so we decided to cross over the road and explore the eastern side, home to the great Karl Marx, Malcolm McLaren and Douglas Adams.
Highgate, like West Norwood, attracted the celebrities and stars of the Victorian era, to the point where the London Cemetery Company that owned it wanted to open another to emulate its success. A location on the eastern side of London was originally examined, however Abney Park had opened in 1840 and fearing competition, expansion was relocated south of the Thames at Nunhead.
Opened in 1860, by the time it received its first coffin (contained therein were the remains of Mary-Anne Webster, the daughter of a local baker), over ten thousand burials had occurred in the older part, with an average of thirty burials a day. Those days are long gone, yet still people are being accommodated here. Perhaps not next door in the magnificent Egyptian Avenue or beneath the branches of the legendary Cedar of Lebanon, but in a pleasant surrounding all the same.
Cudmore, perhaps being more used to life in North London than I, impressed me with his foreknowledge. In fact at certain times he was the one educating me about various people: drawing my attention to the slab where the cremated remains of Ralph Miliband, father of brothers David and Ed were placed. His impeccable knowledge however has been demonstrated before.
We both paused at the memorial to those who died whilst serving the London Fire Brigade during the Second World War, sitting on a bench in a paved area that was sheltered by towering trees. A freshly laid wreath brought our attention to plaques commemorating more recent additions to the memorial at ankle height around the perimeter.
September reminded us that daylight was beginning to makeway for the longer nights, and it was at this point we decided to refresh ourselves in neighbouring Waterlow Park. Emulating what so many other visitors (and Betjeman, at some time or another) must have done after walking around this mecca of death, we swore we’d return when the other side was open.
Marx, Angels and Dead Photo © NJR Photography 2014.