Highgate Cemetery

It seems a little odd to me that despite being the cemetery I’ve spent the most time in, and probably done the most research into, I haven’t written anything about it on this blog yet.
So here is a long overdue Introduction to one of the most famous and most magical of all Victorian cemeteries.

Highgate cemetery opened in 1839, making it one of the earliest British garden cemeteries to actually be Victorian (Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837). It became one of the most popular cemeteries in London, part of the group known as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, and is home to a large number of famous ‘residents’ in both the older Western half of the cemetery, and the newer Eastern half, which opened in 1858, including Karl Marx, who is now the main reason for international visits to Highgate.

At the entrance to the West cemetery there is an Anglican and a non-conformist chapel, joined by a central archway. The Anglican chapel has recently been restored- it looks stunning, and the non-conformist chapel was converted into offices.

Photo of the Highgate Chapels by Robert Freidus from http://www.victorianweb.org/

Photo of the Highgate Chapels by Robert Freidus from victorianweb

Behind the chapels where is a large semi-circular courtyard where the cortege would gather. From the courtyard, much of cemetery is mostly hidden from view by a screen wall, with a few memorials and many trees appearing above the wall.

Photo of the courtyard at Highgate by Robert Freidus from http://www.victorianweb.org/

Photo of the courtyard at Highgate by Robert Freidus from victorianweb

The cemetery site is steep, with many pathways meandering up to the summit of the hill, which is crowned by several magnificent features.

The Egyptian Avenue is an awe-inspiring sight now, so it’s hard to imagine how impressive it must have been to visitors when the cemetery first opened, with an eagle sculpture above the archway and flanked by two huge obelisks (one is sadly broken).

Photo of the Egyptian Avenue at Highgate cemetery by Jeane Trend-Hill for the bbc.

Photo of the Egyptian Avenue at Highgate cemetery by Jeane Trend-Hill for the bbc.

This avenue of catacombs leads to the circle of Lebanon, a ring of catacombs constructed around a huge Cedar of Lebanon tree which pre-dates the cemetery.

Cedar_of_Lebanon_Highgate

The Cedar of Lebanon at Highgate cemetery via Friends of Highgate

At the very top of the hill, is the Terrace Catacombs, which has space for 825 coffins. They were truly innovative – the catacombs are the earliest surviving building to be roofed with Asphalt in England!

Interior of the terrace catacombs via Friends of Highgate

Interior of the terrace catacombs via Friends of Highgate

The Gothic style of the catacombs ties the cemetery to the church of St Michael’s behind.

An early artist's impression of the Circle of Lebanon at Highgate Cemetery from The Mirror (Rutherford 2008)

An early artist’s impression of the Circle of Lebanon at Highgate Cemetery from The Mirror (Rutherford 2008)

The East cemetery is much flatter and is slightly more rigidly laid out, but is still charming and contains many beautiful memorials. Along with Karl Marx, other famous faces include the author Douglas Adams and Malcolm McLaren of Sex Pistols fame.

Photo by Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Photo by Graeme Robertson for The Guardian

Now you are probably all wondering why I haven’t been using photos of my own Highgate explorations for this post? That’s because I was given access to the West Cemetery on the condition that my photos would be used for research purposes only. I’m going back to finish my fieldwork in April, so I’ll discuss permission to use the images on this blog then. In the meantime I’m sure no-one will mind me posting a few wildlife shots I look in the cemetery! These are the photos which come closest to capturing why I love the place so much anyway – the atmosphere is so otherworldly, so peaceful, that tame foxes and cheeky robins seem completely natural there!

robin highgate

I’ll do another post about Highgate and my research in the future, with information about where to find out more. In the meantime I recommend you all check out the Friends of Highgate website and if you can get to London, definitely take a tour!

Bibliography

BBC, no date, Autumn watch: Egyptian Avenue, Highgate Cemetery, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/image_galleries/autumnwatch_gallery.shtml?27, accessed Feb 2015.

Friends of Highgate, 2015, West cemetery, available at http://highgatecemetery.org/visit/cemetery/west, accessed Feb 2015.

Guardian, 2013, Malcolm McLaren’s headstone: as confusing as the man himself, available at http://www.theguardian.com/music/shortcuts/2013/apr/18/malcolm-mclaren-headstone-provocative-man-himself, accessed Feb 2015.

The Victorian Web, 2013, The Chapels at Highgate Cemetery, available at http://www.victorianweb.org/art/parks/highgate/3.html, accessed Feb 2015.

Rutherford, S. 2008, The Victorian Cemetery, Shire Books.

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