Off the tourist track: Highgate Cemetery

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A visit to north London’s Highgate Cemetery has been on my list for a long time. We’ve touched on the topic of cemeteries in London before. I was sure I’d also blogged about a good book on the subject (“Necropolis: London and its Dead”) but apparently I dreamed that, somewhere in between the dream where Bill Byrson emails to say he’s been lurking on the blog for years and invites me up to his place in Yorkshire for a pint and a friendly ramble across the countryside and the dream where Harrison Ford comes and builds new kitchen cabinets for the boat. But I digress.  Back to Highgate Cemetery, which I visited a while back after managing to secure one of the limited number of tickets they issue for guided tours each week.

I seem to be blogging about the Victorians a lot these days - Crossness and Bazelgette, the ropemaking, Brunel’s boat and bridge - but honestly, they were a pretty interesting and clever bunch and I like reading and writing about the interesting and clever things they did, so settle in. Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers will recall that for most of London’s existence the dead were buried in small local churchyards, often one on top of another to pack more and more corpses into the finite space available. By the mid-1800s though, this practise was becoming unsustainable and, frankly, pretty gross, what with the stench of rotting corpses oozing up out of the ground, along with the occasional stray arm or foot. In 1832 parliament passed an act encouraging the establishment of large privately run suburban cemeteries outside the metropolis of London and eventually seven were created under the auspices of the London Cemetery Company, with Highgate Cemetery opening in 1839. Shortly after, in 1851, the new Burials Act prohibited fresh burials inside London, thus firmly establishing the “Magnificent Seven” as going concerns.

Here’s the main entry to Highgate Cemetery, with the chapel on the left side.

Highgate Cemetery is divided into west and east sides. The west was established first, on 17 acres of land below Highgate village, most of which is on a steep hillside with sweeping views south towards central London. Its grounds were laid out with exotic formal plantings and stunning gothic architecture in order to attract wealthy investors. The Victorian attitude towards death was different than our own. As with their buildings and bridges, graveyards and grave markers became a way to show wealth and status, especially with elaborate headstones, crypts and tombs. The prices for plots in prestigious areas of Highgate were not cheap, and with lots of space to fill and an ever-renewing clientele, Highgate grew quickly. More than 10,000 graves had already been created in the original west side when the cemetery it extended across the road to another large swathe of land in 1854. The east side is home to Highgate's more modern graves.

This is Nero the lion, at the grave of George Wombwell, shoemaker-turned-menagerist.  

Despite what you're probably thinking, this one isn’t actually broken.  It was a fashion at the time to depict columns broken off, symbolic of a life cut short.

All this Victorian grandeur is part of what makes Highgate a beautiful place to visit today. It’s known most particularly for the architectural features laid out by the site’s designers. The Victorians had a particular fascination with ancient Egypt, and Highgate’s designers played to those fashions and worked cleverly with the existing steep slope to create the cemetery’s most notable architectural features.

As the Highgate website says: "In the heart of the grounds was created the Egyptian Avenue, an imposing structure consisting of sixteen vaults on either side of a broad passageway, entered via a great arch. These vaults were fitted with shelves for twelve coffins and were purchased by individual families for their sole use.”

"This avenue then lead to the Circle of Lebanon which was built in the same style and consisted of twenty vaults on the inner circle with a further sixteen added in the 1870s, built in the Classical style."

The Circle was created by excavating around a 300 year old Cedar of Lebanon tree that already existed on the site.

You might think that things look a bit rough and overgrown in these photos, and you would be correct.  It’s true that running a large cemetery in Victorian England was - initially - a great money spinner. Highgate's grounds were originally open and manicured, with the aforementioned sweeping views. However, Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers will realise that the business plan behind large cemeteries is fatally flawed. (Ironic.) The difficulty is this: plots are generally sold in perpetuity (their occupants almost never decide to relocate) meaning that once a plot is sold it can never be resold. However, this means that the number of plots available to sell grows smaller and smaller, thus income shrinks. Meanwhile the cost to maintain existing plots, grounds and structures increases, especially as the structures age and decay. Therefore, sources of new revenue eventually dry up as the cemetery is filled, but the expenses grow, leading to financial decline.

Add to this the fact that attitudes towards death and practises surrounding it changed greatly after the First World War, with elaborate crypts and tombs falling out of favour, and smaller graves and markers becoming more common. Plots became more and more neglected as families broke up or moved away, and maintenance on those plots declined. In 1960, the great London Cemetery Company - first formed in 1836 - declared bankruptcy and Highgate Cemetery’s gates were closed and the site abandoned. For fifteen years the cemetery was neglected, becoming a vast, overgrown and tumbledown labyrinth. This was unfortunate, but it’s part of what makes the site so beautiful now - the air of stillness and wildness.

See what I mean? Apparently, they recently discovered the grave of Michael Faraday back there.  Or maybe it was some other surprisingly notable scientist you might expect people to have kept better track of.  (My notes are sketchy on this, consisting entirely of the great man's last name, spelled wrong.)

Finally, in 1975, a group of local residents formed the Friends of Highgate Cemetery and slowly began a decades long, and still ongoing, process of clearing the overgrown landscape and pathways and repairing some of the more significant and beautiful memorials. The work is slow, and funded mostly by donations, tour fees and the small revenue stream created by new burials. (It’s still possible to be buried at Highgate, even on the west side, though a spot in a prime location now sells for about £10,000.) Part of the ongoing difficulty of managing the cemetery is that the original plots were not intended for single burials but rather as family plots, with enough space for 12 bodies (two wide, six deep). The same is true for the crypts in Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon; the vast majority of the graves are underused, with many crypts almost empty and the registered owners long gone, leaving no legal means of opening and making use of much of the available space in the cemetery.

Alexander Litvinenko.  One of the most recent and notable graves in the west side.

The west side of Highgate, with its Victorian grandeur and overgrown Gothic monuments, is closed to the general public expect on the aforementioned guided tours. (Family members wishing to visit gravesites are accommodated privately in the morning.) The general closure is in order to preserve the monuments themselves, many of which are fragile and unstable, and also to preserve gormless members of the public who would be certain to injure themselves in stupid (though possibly amusing) ways while clambering, unchaperoned, over crumbling stonework. Happily, the east side of the cemetery is open to the public every day, and though it's more modern and less evocative that the west side, it does have a few notable residents.

Me and Karl Marx.  I'm saluting the workers of the world, obviously. 

I love this one.  Modern artist Patrick Caulfield.

And this was my favourite - author Douglas Adams*. Apparently people leave pens in the little pot here all the time. I guess they're tidier and take up less space than towels. (I have a great personal one-degree-of-separation anecdote about Douglas Adams, but it's best related face to face. Buy me a drink the next time you see me and I'll tell you all about it.)

Charmingly, when you stop a cemetery worker to ask directions to a particular gravesite they invariably say something like “Oh, he’s just past the fork in the path on the left.” As if the object of your search is going to be found sitting on a bench having a cup of tea rather than six feet under.

And that's Highgate Cemetery. Tick another one off the list for a summer that seems to have included a good crop of bloggable stuff, coupled with a bunch of time off work, an improbable abundance of sunshine, and a respectable amount of cake, which has all been very nice indeed.

However, by the time you read this GSWPL World Headquarters will have relocated from our location aboard the Lucky Nickel back to foreign climes! As much as I'd like to spend the late summer and fall putt-putting down the canal or refitting the kitchen or walking the Cinque Terra or something, duty calls. I've been asked to go back to Baku, Azerbaijan to work on the Opening and Closing ceremonies for the Islamic Solidarity Games, which will be held there in May of 2017. So the boat is tucked up at a marina in north London, and I've packed my bags and made the trek back to Baku. I'll write more as things progress, of course. And as usual, you can expect the blogging to become more infrequent as the old work-blog balance shifts. For now, I'll just head this off at the pass:
  1. "Islamic Solidarity Games? Huh?" I know. I know. If you thought my last Baku gig was a bit obscure, you've got another think coming. But they are a real, if intermittent, thing. I've taken to calling them the Islampics, but suspect I should probably stop that.
  2. I have no idea if the women will wear full body covering when they're running the 200m hurdles or synchronised swimming or whatever. I'll let you know. But really, is that ALWAYS going to be the first question people ask?
And that's it. I'll update on Baku as I get settled, and I'll continue to post London-y, boat-y stuff too, because there are still fun things to report from the summer. Watch this space!

1 Comment:

daphne said...

Wow Baku again. You do live an interesting life. Thanks for sharing it.

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