I suppose we all have places we want to see before we die. Some of us have places we want to see before we die and then get buried in them! Highgate Cemetery is definitely on my list. Situated in walking distance from Archway underground station on the Northern Line, it is well worth taking a trip to. The cemetery is divided into an East Side and West Side, although on this occasion my trip only covered the East Side. Google Earth co-ordinates are: 51.566900°, -0.146533°
Once past the gates there are just graves, tangled undergrowth, trees and more graves. It seems to be as if somebody randomly buried people, but I do believe there is some sort of sense to what is going on there. The first grave, is that of Mary Ann Webster, who was buried here on 12 June 1860. 26 years before Johannesburg was founded!
Bear in mind that way back in 1860 people still used horse drawn hearses and the Victorians were doing their best at mourning. I don’t know how quickly it filled, but it soon became THE place to be seen when you died. I did expect a lot of artistic statuary, but strangely enough there wasn’t too much, instead I did see a lot of similar headstones, and some had incredibly long inscriptions too.
In parts the undergrowth has completely covered the graves, and moss and lichens abound. In fact the cemetery seems to be its own ecosystem. Given the amount of rain and fertile soil the dominant colour is green.
And there is abundant birdlife and I even saw squirrels going about their business amongst the dead. The cemetery has seen the Boer War, and both World Wars, and I saw graves from all three of these conflicts. There is even the grave of a Victoria Cross Holder, Sergeant Robert Grant, (1837-1867), who was awarded the VC during the Indian Rebellion.
There are supposedly 316 identified Casualties listed by the Commonwealth War Graves in the cemetery Most that I saw were easily identified by the familiar white headstone,
A Cross of Sacrifice is situated in the West Side of the Cemetery, but I could not access it and ended up photographing it through the fence.
The rich and famous have also found their repose here, amongst others are Karl Marx, Sir Ralph Richardson, Douglas Adams, and Dr Yusuf Dadoo from South Africa. Karl Marx seems to garner the most attention, but I was much happier to see the grave of Douglas Adams. “Don’t Panic” was all I could say to him.
Of course the weather was variable during my visit, and I experienced rain and sunshine, but I can just imagine what it must look like during a snow storm. This is not a cemetery that is easy to visit. While there are tarred main roads inside it, there are also very treacherous paths between the graves that are really like a series of connected mud patches. The moss and lichen is also growing on everything, and what interested me was how it would often grow in the shape of the inscriptions on the headstones.
The cemetery is still in use and is operated by Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust. Tours of the West Side are run from Monday to Sunday and I am definitely going to do one before I leave London. In fact, I will probably redo the East Side again just because it is so beautiful.
This is Joyce, she is one of my favourite children’s statues. It seems as if she was 5 years old when she died, but even though I have many photographs of her I do not have a picture of her plinth. She is pretty though, in a battered and weathered fashion, and that is true for many of the statues and angels in this cemetery.
Except it may not be true for this fellow, I had missed seeing him the first time I was here, but spotted him the second time around.
I have never really understood art for arts sake, but some of these works that I see in cemeteries are all about emotion and devotion. They can be very powerful.
Highgate, as the first of the “Magnificent Seven” would unfairly become the yardstick by which I would measure the other six of these famous cemeteries in London. In all fairness though, it should be the Magnificent Eight because Highgate West is really a cemetery in it’s own right. With retrospect these two places are very different, even though they are across the road from each other.
In all likelihood, the next time I go to Highgate I will see different headstones to what I saw in March 2013, and hopefully by then I will have all 7 (or 8) of the Magnificent Seven under my belt, and I will see it once again through new eyes.
DRW © 2013-2021. Reviewed 21/01/2015, recreated images 28/02/2016, deleted gallery page as images have gone awol 27/07/2021