Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Highgate - A Walking Tour of the West Cemetery

I left London yesterday and am now up in wonderful (ahem) Wakefield, West Yorkshire in the bosom of my family counting down the days to Christmas. Not long to go now and just one last thing left to buy, a Michael Buble CD as a stocking filler for Mum. Like post menopausal women everywhere she is quite the fan of the cheeky wee Canadian chappie, but I had to wait until I was oop t'north again to buy it so that I could make sure my sister hadn't had the same idea. She hadn't so that will be me off into Leeds on Christmas Eve tomorrow. Probably not my best idea since it's likely to be pandemonium. The place will be heaving with men who have left their shopping until the last minute furtively skulking around the lingerie in M&S and trollied office workers out for a festive beverage or ten. Fun!! I should have gone today really, but I wasn't sure on the times of the trains and was feeling quite lazy after traipsing about London for the past week, so instead I stayed home and did a Legs, Bums and Tums class led by Ladan Soltani on Fitness TV this morning to try and offset all the food I shall be scoffing over the next few days - it was pretty good, I'm sure I'll be sore tomorrow - and then cleaned the house this afternoon with half an eye on repeats of Come Dine With Me - the absolute best show on British TV in my opinion if only for the delusional Brits fancying themselves as the host with the most and Dave Lamb's voice overs - while drinking copious amounts of tea. I'm not sure what it is, but as soon as I set foot on British soil I am oddly compelled to drink 2 cups of tea per hour, whereas in the US I probably drink only 2 cups of tea in an entire day.

England looked like a winter wonderland yesterday as the train up to Wakefield sped through snow covered countryside. They were all freaking out in London when it started to settle on Thursday night. It's so funny to be here with the snow and compare it to being in New York. England just doesn't DO snow and I always imagine the powers that be running around like headless chickens with their arms flapping wondering what to do, whereas in New York I imagine them rolling up their sleeves and getting the snow plows out. I was expecting the tubes to be mucked up on Friday but it had all but dissolved overnight in Central London, however my friend Kimberley, out in Amersham, had about 8inches fall in her garden which then froze making the roads treacherous and scuppering her plan to join a few of us for our annual get-together at
Galvin Bistrot, I restaurant I can highly recommend should you ever be in the vicinity of Baker St.

Kimberley's Garden


We also had to postpone plans she and I had to catch up and take in a tour of
Highgate Cemetery on Saturday, something I realised I'd never done whilst living in London when I recently read Audrey Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which uses the cemetery as a backdrop so I was of a mind to visit, however it was so cold out that had Kimberley been completely snowbound I think I would have ditched my plans, but fortunately we were able to reschedule for Sunday.

The cemetery is split into two parts - East and West - with the oldest part of the cemetery, the west, only accessible via a tour which run hourly between 11am and 3pm on weekends between November and February and from 11-4pm between March and October. One of my friends thought it was a bit morbid of us to visit a cemetery, but I love a good cemetery tour and hearing about the history of a place so if you are of a similar persuasion I can highly recommend Highgate, which was incredibly pretty, especially in the snow, albeit extremely cold.

We arrived at the west cemetery at 12:57pm to see a sign hanging on the gates indicating the next tour was at 2pm, but as I as luck would have it, just as we were pondering where to go to kill an hour in the freezing cold a man popped his head out of the gatehouse/chapel and opened the gates for us, letting us join the 1pm tour that was just leaving. Phew!!

In the early nineteenth century London's population more than doubled from one million in the early 1800s to 2.3million by the 1830s and the small parish churchyards, where the city had previously buried the dead, were becoming dangerously overcrowded, with decaying matter finding its way into the water supply causing epidemics. Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839 after Parliament passed an act in 1832 that paved the way for the creation of seven private cemeteries in London, which along with Highgate include Kensal Green, West Norwood, Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton and Tower Hamlets cemeteries. Highgate's location overlooking London meant it quickly became one of London's most fashionable cemeteries and in 1854 Highgate Cemetery was extended a further 20acres across Swains Lane creating the East Cemetery with burial rights sold in perpetuity.

Our first stop on the walking tour was at the grave of James Selby, a nineteenth century coachman, who in 1888 accepted a bet to drive from London to Brighton and back again in under 8hours, a bet he won by completing the trip in a record 7hours 50 minutes. A record that apparently still stands today. Unfortunately Mr Selby passed shortly after achieving that record. The three tiers beneath the cross headstone on the grave represent the Anglican tenets of faith, hope and charity.

The grave on the right of this photo belongs to the first person to be buried in Highgate Cemetery, Elizabeth Jackson of Little Windmill Street, Soho, who died aged 36, a spinster of that particular parish. Apparently the average age of death in London in 1839 was 27years so Miss Jackson lived to a relatively ripe old age.


Following the world wars the cemetery fell into a long period of neglect until The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust was established in 1975 and in 1981 the group acquired the freehold of both East and West Cemeteries and since that time have been responsible for the cemeteries upkeep, operating under a policy of 'managed neglect' as evidenced by this beautiful ivy covered tomb. The snow definitely adds a touch of romance don't you think? It was absolutely bloody freezing though, so I hope you like the photos as my fingers were practically falling off by the end of the one hour tour.


The entrance to Egyptian Avenue. I read here that the avenue slopes gently upwards with the walls decreasing in height along the length of the avenue giving the optical illusion that the avenue is longer than it actually is. I can't say I noticed.

Along the avenue are sixteen recessed doorways, eight on each side, which are the entrances to the rectangular roomed tombs each with shelves to hold the coffins. Each tomb has a capacity to hold 12 coffins.

The door to a tomb inside Egyptian Avenue. The upside down torches carved into the door represent a life extinguished.

At the top of Egyptian Avenue is the Circle Of Lebanon, twenty sunken tombs built around the roots of an old cedar tree, for which the Circle is named. The tree is believed to predate the cemetery as the only remaining feature of the terraced gardens of Ashurst Manor, the estate of Sir William Ashurst, Lord Mayor of London (1693-94), and Director of the Bank of England. It's pretty spectacular, but was difficult to stand far enough back to get a good shot of the Circle including the tree, but here's a view of some of the tombs on the right of the circle as you leave Egyptian Avenue


And here's a view of the cedar tree after climbing up the steps above the Circle Of Lebanon.


The grave below belongs to George Wombwell, Menagerist and founder of Wombwell's Travelling Menagerie. Mr Wombwell's tomb is overseen by a sleeping lion, said to be his pet, Nero. Covered in snow like that Nero puts me in mind of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia.

Our fellow tourists carefully making their way through the snowy cemetery.

Shrouded urns crown many of the tombs at Highgate and were a common symbol of death in Victorian times, often used to mark the grave of an older person, in relative terms at any rate. Many of these urns, like the one below, had been completely taken over by the foliage.


And this one is just totally out of control.

Here's our guide talking to us about Thomas Sayers, a nineteenth century pugilist and the first English boxer to fight an international match when he fought American John C. Heenan in 1860 in a fight that lasted 37 rounds and 2hours and 20 minutes and was eventually declared a draw. Sayers and Heenan became close friends after the fight and toured together staging theatrical re-enactments of their famed fight. Sayers was a much loved figure and a public subscription was made for his benefit, raising £3,000, a vast sum in those days, and given to him on condition he retire from the ring. Following his retirement, Sayers became a familiar figure on the streets of North London, accompanied by his large dog, Lion, a present from his patron Lord Derby. He died of tuberculosis aged 39 and his funeral at Highgate was the biggest the cemetery has ever seen and the funeral cortege stretched from the gates of Highgate to Tottenham Court Rd, a distance of approximately 5 miles. Sayers' dog, Lion, watches over his tomb.


A snow covered sleeping angel watches over this tomb....


Last but not least was this colonnade of tombs as we headed back to the entrance of the West Cemetery


I particularly liked the symbolism on the gates of the hour glass with wings to represent time flying away. Something we could all do to remember.

10 comments:

Kitty said...

Amazing about the life span of people back then. holy cow, are we lucky?

Really pretty cemetery, and lovely photos. You're brave to go in the winter.

Happy holidays, Fish!

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Hi Kitty, it's incredible to me how far we have come in terms of life expectancy in such a relatively short period of time. I was shocked when I found out it was just 27 and Googled a few sources to be sure.

Glad you enjoyed the photos :-)

Blur Ting said...

Hi Fish! Woah, I can see your fascination with the tombstones but this cemetery is pretty.

I would like to wish you happy holidays too.

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Hi Blur Ting, nice to hear from you. Happy Holidays to you too :-)

Simon said...

Hi pet yes had a grand Christmas,I hope you had the same in swinging Wakefield!Not much snow in Alnwick,we missed most of it,but I'm told New Years Eve is when to expect more.Take care.

Amelia Listiani said...

Hey, THANKS A LOT for the tour. LOVE it! Never thought it'd be so interesting to tour around a cemetery. LOVE all the photos! :-D

P.S. I'm also shocked about 27 y.o. That means I should've been dead by now if I had lived back then. Gee...

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Hi Simon, glad to hear you are enjoying your Christmas. Mine has been nice and relaxing in Wakefield, although it's been crazy slippy from the remnants of the snow turning to ice. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I won't have any problems getting back down to Heathrow for my flight back to NYC.

Hi Amel, glad you enjoyed the photos, the life expectancy of 27years is crazy eh, especially when you think that it wasn't all that long ago and average life expectancy in the UK nowadays is something like 78years. It's mindboggling to think that in 170+years our life expectancy has increased by 50+years.

Andrea said...

Great pictures. I need to bookmark this site so I can come back tonight when I have more time to read and look!

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Hi Andrea, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Glad you enjoyed the post :-)

Jane said...

Fascinating place. Enjoyed very much ,its very peaceful place, if you wanna spend some time in peace and wanna see the array of prominent people buried over here. I'm definitely curious to see the other 'Magnificent 7' cemeteries in London after ending up with this.

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