Destinations Magazine

London: Highgate Cemetery, Victorian Splendor for the Departed

By Carolinearnoldtravel @CarolineSArnold
Final Resting Place for the Famous
(Excerpt from my diary of our three month stay in London in the fall of 1998.)

London:  Highgate Cemetery, Victorian Splendor for the Departed

Entrance to Highgate Cemetery

On Sunday afternoon, we visited Highgate Cemetery, the burial site of Karl Marx and many other famous people.  We got there in time to see both sides (east and west) and take the tour. The cemetery, which covers 800 acres of hillside and has something like 80,000 graves, had its heydey in the Victorian era.  The average age of death at the time was 35!  The cemetery was opened in 1839 and was operated by a private company until the 1970’s, by which time all the plots had been sold and they were no longer able to make any money.  The company then abandoned the cemetery, and it became derelict. Highgate Cemetery is now operated by a the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust and it is the ladies of this charity that run the tours. The west side, which contains the oldest section and most elaborate tombs, can only be visited on a tour.  The east side is still a functional cemetery.
Angels and Obelisks

London:  Highgate Cemetery, Victorian Splendor for the Departed

Gravestones Amidst Undergrowth

   We started on the east side where we wandered about on our own.  Graves are topped by stone crosses, urns, broken columns (symbolizing a life cut short),  but my favorites are those with angels on top.  A forest and tangle of ivy and bushes has grown up around the graves over the last hundred years, so the angels often look like they might take off into the trees.  Egyptian themes were also popular in Victorian times, so we saw obelisks of various sizes, some of them tilted rakishly as if they were drunk, and even a sizeable  pyramid.  We were surprised at the length and variety of inscriptions on the tombs which often told the occupation of the person as well as when the deceased had “gone to sleep”, a Victorian euphemism for death.
The Notable Dead

London:  Highgate Cemetery, Victorian Splendor for the Departed

Karl Marx's Grave

    To us the cemetery seemed parklike and peaceful, but I can imagine that on a rainy or foggy day, it would have a suitably creepy atmosphere.  Apparently, before it was locked up in the 1970’s, several horror films were shot there.  On our tour of the west side, we saw the grave of a stage coach driver carved with the whip and bugle of his trade and two upsidedown horseshoes to show that his luck had turned.   Other graves that we saw included one of the man who invented of the toothbrush; of George Williams, the founder of the YMCA, (significant to me because my father went to George Williams College in Chicago); and the crypt of a general in the Crimean War, built to look like the Crimean peninsula. 
The Menagerist

London:  Highgate Cemetery, Victorian Splendor for the Departed

Grave of George Wombwell "Menagerist"

My favorite tomb, topped by a huge lion, was the final resting place of George Wombwell, a man described as a “menagerist.”  He started life as a shoemaker.  One day, he went down to the London docks, where he bought two large boa constrictors.  His plan was to turn them into shoes, but he found that people were so fascinated by the living snakes that he started touring the country and showing them off.  He gradually acquired more animals (including the lion--named Nero--depicted on the top of his grave) and launched a new career as a “menagerist.” 
Mussels at the End of the Day
   After leaving Highgate, we took the tube to Camden Town and emerged onto the street into a seething mob of teenagers.  This is apparently THE spot to be if you are under eighteen.  Music was blaring and  I’ve never seen so many shoe shops with those giant sneakers with oversize soles.  Our goal was Belgo, a restaurant that features mussels, french fries, and 100 different kinds of Belgian beer.  Luckily, by the time we reached Belgo, we had left the teenagers behind.  Art ordered a kilo of mussels, which came in a big tin bucket, and I got a platter of mussels cooked in butter and garlic.  They were great!  The waiter wanted to know if we wanted an order of rockets on the side.  We had no idea what rockets were.  A salad, he explained, and drew a picture of something that looked like dandelion greens.  It turns out that rockets are what the British call arugula.  The salad was excellent.  Belgo also gets my vote for the world’s best cappucino.
A few of the famous people buried at Highgate Cemetery:
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Karl Marx
Sir Ralph Richardson
Jacob Bronowski
Christina Rossetti
John Galsworthy
Where is Highgate Cemetery?
The cemetery is located on both sides of Swain's Lane in Highgate, N6, next to Waterlow Park. The Main Gate is located just north of Oakshott Avenue. To get there by tube from London, take the Northern Line (High Barnet branch) to Archway (not Highgate). On leaving the station, you can take a short bus ride up to Highgate village or turn left and walk up Highgate Hill (which is very steep), past the Whittington Hospital until you get to St Joseph’s Church (obvious by its large green copper dome). Enter Waterlow Park on your left and go downhill across the park (past the duck ponds) to the Swain's Lane exit (below the tennis courts).  The walk can take up to 40 minutes depending on your speed.

London:  Highgate Cemetery, Victorian Splendor for the Departed

Highgate Cemetery


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