|Nell used fair trade jelly beans to give her the energy to tour so many graves.|
The locked black gates are finally opened a few minutes after 3pm. Just like the website they open without a creak. But the moment I pay up (£7 for an adult, £3 for a child) a rogue rain cloud drops its load into the courtyard. It's as if Highgate Cemetery (West) doesn't feel like visitors today. But then the weather changes again - brighter clouds scud past and the sun breaks through into the woodland walkways, turning even the granite and crumbling graves a sort of picturesque (if your taste is vampish).
Our guide is superb, an Archway local dressed in white - an angelic effect I'm certain she intended. Within minutes we know that Victorian London was expanding so fast that it needed more graveyards - the result was the Magnificent Seven which ring London. In 1839 Highgate Cemetery was opened, but you needed a lot of cash to be buried here especially if you wanted a plot by a path or a large family vault. The price didn't seem to inhibit Londoners - it's claimed there were 30 funerals a day at the purpose built chapel (Church of England to one side, dissenters (ie, anyone else) to the other).
Our guide claimed that there are now 169,000 people buried in one of London's most desirable postcodes (NW6) in 50,000+ graves. There are just 30 plots left on this side of Swains Lane, apparently available to any of us, so long as you pay £20,000. There are more plots available on the east side though.
|At the entrance of Egyptian Avenue. Anyone with a vault had their name and street they'd lived in carved on it.|
Victorians were death experts, as well a generation might with such high infant mortality and generally shortened life-expectation.
These graves tend to tell the story of their occupant's life. So coachman James Selby has a long whip and a horn on his stone, and adornments of inversed (ie, upside down) horseshoes. Anything inversed is a sign of death. Selby's grave was funded by his coach driving colleagues and friends. There's a pic of him here, famous because he won a £1,000 wager that he could drive from Piccadilly Circus, London to Brighton and back within eight hours. Indeed his life legend lives on that he could complete a coach and the four horses needed to pull it in just 47 seconds. Quite astonishing. I can't even get out of my office chair that fast!
As you climb uphill there's a huge stone Egyptian Avenue where the super-rich buried their families in 12-people tombs. It's very Egyptian looking - lotus flowers and columns, except these are inverted. Even the keyholes are the wrong way up as a mark of respect. With the tree roots twisting up the banks and the dark overhang of heavy June-cloaked trees there is a strange impression in the graveyard of other worldliness, just like the commissioners of the Pyramids must have tried to achieve. Years ago there were 80 gardeners keeping the undergrowth neatly trim, but now a handful of volunteers manage it as a wildlife paradise - and certainly the dappled pathways attract gently flickering butterflies on their hunt for nectar.
After the Egyptian Avenue you pass the Circle of Lebanon - vaults designed to keep 18 people, although curiously none are full up - the maximum is nine family members - which completely encircles a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon tree. This is 300 plus years old, far exceeding its expected life, which is a pleasing thought in such a crowded cemetery.
|This is George Wimbwell's grave. He ran a travelling circus starring many animals, including the lion, Nero, above, who was good-natured enough to let children clamber on him.|
These big cemeteries became run down after World War 1 resulting in serious vandalism. In a bid to refinance the place Hammer Horror was allowed to film but that seems to have added to the kudos of getting into the graveyard and breaking off a bit of stone for your own. These vandals were clearly immune to the places' atmosphere - in the vaults which are not allowed to be filmed many coffins are piled up as if in an Ikea cupboard, their human contents now long rotted and seemingly forgotten. It's a very dark, spooky place which I hope not to have nightmares about.
That said - you must go. What's more three days later I was back inside as a volunteer working on conservation tasks. It gives you such a calm feeling - and you're never short of reading material on all those gravestones...