Victorian extravagance has made Highgate Cemetery a seriously impressive place.
Yes, we’re well aware that cemeteries rarely make for a lovely afternoon stroll. But when that cemetery is one of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’, you know you’ll see some magnificent sights. Highgate Cemetery, along with its six siblings, represents the finest in Victorian burial traditions, and it’s actually a very nice place for a wander.
We’ll get the obvious out of the way nice and early: there are bodies in here. Highgate Cemetery is the resting place of 170,000 people, and they aren’t full yet. People are still buried here today, but you have to meet certain criteria if you’re eyeing up a spot – either you must be over 80, or you must have a terminal illness. Anyway, cheerful stuff aside, there are some impressive sights to see here, as you’d expect from a place that’s been growing and changing since 1839.
Highgate Cemetery has some celebrity residents, probably the most famous of which is Karl Marx. Devoted Communist and noted beard lover, his grave features a large statue of himself, which has survived being blown up by fervent capitalists. In one of London’s great ironies, you’ll have to pay a £4 fee to see his grave, because it is (shock horror) private property.
Literary figures buried here include George Eliot, Douglas Adams, and poet Christina Rossetti. The man who may have been the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty, Adam Worth, is buried here in a pauper’s grave. Highgate Cemetery also houses defected Russian spy and high-profile murder victim Alexander Litvinenko, buried in a lead-lined coffin so as to prevent radioactive poisoning.
The graves and mausoleums of Highgate Cemetery are where funeral architects let their imagination run wild. In the West Cemetery, Victorian fascination with the Egyptians resulted in the stunning Egyptian Avenue, as well as numerous impressive tombs. Meanwhile, the equally impressive Lebanon Circle has appeared in many a ‘gram over the years. Less beautiful, but a lot more spooky, are the subterranean Terrace Catacombs; enter if you dare.
It isn’t just the Victorians who know how to design an impressive grave however – artist Patrick Caulfield’s postmodern offering has the word DEAD as a central feature. Sometimes, though, the more humble graves are best. Take the grave of Victorian boxer Thomas Sayers, which has his faithful dog lying on it to keep him company.
Highgate Cemetery isn’t all about the graves, though. The winding maze of trees is home to numerous species of birds and butterflies, as well as foxes and badgers. Less cute is the Highgate Vampire, who whipped up mass hysteria after sightings were first reported in 1969. However, if you can dodge the supernatural creatures here, you’ll find Highgate Cemetery a rather peaceful spot for perambulating.
Location: Swain’s Lane, Highgate, N6 6PJ. Nearest station is Archway. See it on Google Maps.
Opening hours: the East Cemetery is open 10am to 5pm everyday. The West Cemetery runs tours 11am-4pm on Saturdays and Sundays, or at 11am and 1:45pm most weekdays.
Entry: £4 to gain admission to the East Cemetery and wander around freely. The West Cemetery is by guided tour only, which can be booked here for £12.
More information: from their website.
[Featured image: Nick Garrod]