Tuesday, 9 August 2016

My Trip to Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery is one of the world's great classic graveyards. Since it was established in north London in 1839 over 170,000 people have been interred there. It originally looked quite conventional, with well-mown grass baulks between the tombs, but after a while it went to seed and a forest grew over it. Today huge trees, bushes, wildflowers and ivy sprout between and through the gravestones giving the place a very gothic and eerie atmosphere. In fact many ghost and horror movies have been filmed there. The weather was hot and Ustane and I felt tired as we walked up Swains Lane and entered the gates of the East Side of the cemetery. I felt a bit guilty because Ustane has never been a hospital porter and therefore lacks the walking stamina I do; I should have thought of that and got a taxi from the Underground station. However hot weather is the perfect condition to visit the place because there is no shortage of shade beneath the leafy summer canopy that covers the necropolis. Entry to Highgate Cemetery is strictly controlled and security is tight. This is because of multiple acts of theft and vandalism that have plagued it over the years. Grave markers have been broken up or stolen, bodies exhumed, occult rituals have been performed and there have even been two bomb attacks. Tours of the West Side have to be booked five weeks in advance and nobody is permitted to wander unescorted there. We were not able to visit it on this trip. This is a shame because the West Side has the most spectacular architecture; such as Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon, a massive and elaborate Victorian mausoleum. It was here that in the 1960's some corpses were pulled out of the vaults and wooden stakes driven through their ribcages; literally, because they were very old and bones were all that was left of them. This was blamed on an occult group with a vampire obsession; see the link to the radio show below for more details. I will certainly return to see the West and places on the tour can be booked here: http://highgatecemetery.org/. The East Side however, according to our tour guide, has the most interesting people buried there. There were about a dozen visitors on our tour. The guide explained how we were allowed to wander off if we wished, but I'm glad we stuck with him because he gave us some fascinating information. Highgate Cemetery is almost full now. Every square inch of land I saw had a grave on it, even right outside the visitors' toilet block. The very pathways we walked on were rows of pauper's graves; sometimes twenty deep. The bodies were buried in cheap matchwood coffins which decompose quickly allowing the body inside to reduce to skeletons just as rapidly and sink in the soil so somebody else could be easily buried on top. The main grave sections are almost completely full now, but a new plot has just been acquired from a neighbouring park and some fresh graves and open spaces were visible there. The tour guide took us to some of the most famous graves and allowed us to take photographs:
Near the entrance are huge upright and solid mausoleums which wealthy and important people in the 1930's chose as their final resting place. They are flamboyant and imposing; I immediately christened them "ego-graves".
This is the grave of the American nature writer Opal Whitley. Her epitaph gives her name as Francoise Marie de Bourbon-Orleans because she claimed to be descended from French aristocracy. The grave is still tended by a mystery mourner who leaves flowers and engravings, but they come and go very furtively and nobody has ever identified them. This is not the only such enigma in Highgate Cemetery. Check out the Canary Wharf tombstone next door. That was put there in the 1950's; was somebody precognitive?
The postmodern artist Patrick Caulfield has a gravestone that suits his style very closely. The word cut into the top simply says: "DEAD". He must have been a very literal man.
This is Jeremy Beadle's final resting place. He may not be about anymore, but he will never be forgotten. He loved reading as well as practical jokes, so the sculptor produced a small library for his tomb.
There were many very bizarre avant-garde graves like these two.
This is the original grave of Karl Marx. His children and his long-suffering wife, Jenny of Westphalia, are also interred here. After he died his co-author Friedrich Engels revealed a family secret, that of Marx's son whom he had fathered during an affair with his maid Helene Demuth and whom Engels has brought up as his own to avoid a public scandal. The son, Frederick, was buried here when he died in 1929.
Karl Marx is Highgate Cemetery's most famous "resident", as they call them. The political philosopher was a German, but lived most of his adult life in London. Whether you support him or oppose him (I personally oppose him and consider him a tool of the New World Order), nobody can deny that he is one of the most influential people who ever lived. Therefore his small inconspicuous grave was regarded as too lowly. In 1955 the Communist Party of Great Britain arranged for his body to be moved to a new grave beneath the imposing pedestal and bust of the Karl Marx Memorial. It is a bulky marble edifice placed prominently on a corner of one of the main pathways. It is topped with an oversized bronze bust of that famous bushy-bearded head. There have been two attempts to destroy the Memorial with explosives, in 1965 and 1970, but "they just nudged it to the left!" quipped the guide. There was a crowd of around fifty people visiting the Memorial and some visitors come to Highgate Cemetery just to see it. The management of the Cemetery cater specially to those of Marxist beliefs and encourages "comrades" to come and pay their respects to the founder of their philosophy. As you can see, there are flowers and other tributes left there regularly. The tour guide told us that during the 1960's the Soviet and Chinese embassies in London sent hundreds of their staff at a time to pay homage at the Memorial and there was a campaign to move Marx' body to Red Square in Moscow. Luckily for Highgate's fame and fortune this was unsuccessful. The space around the Karl Marx Memorial is hot property for his supporters to be laid to rest. It is known as "Commie Corner". Famous left wing politicians and activists such as Ralph Miliband, Paul Foot and Claudia Jones have plots nearby.
This is the tomb of Corin Redgrave, a famous actor who starred in films such as Anthony and Cleopatra and Four Weddings and a Funeral. He was an ardent supporter of Karl Marx and wanted to be buried closer to the Memorial, but had to put up with being about two hundred yards away. This shows how full up Highgate Cemetery is.
Douglas Adams was the author who created the ingenious and hilarious Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy. He died of heart disease in 2001 at a young age while exercising at the gym... I'm sure he would have chuckled at the irony of that too. There is an urban legend that his epitaph reads: "So long and thanks for all the fish!" As you can see above, this is not true. His marker is surprisingly modest in fact. The pot of pens are tributes from fans of his writing.
Anna Mahler was a famous sculptress and the statue on her gravestone is one she made herself.
This is probably my favourite gravestone in Highgate Cemetery, and I didn't note whose it was.
There are many dark secrets at Highgate Cemetery. One of those is a tunnel dug under Swains Lane between the East and West sides so coffins could be manoeuvred from the chapel in the West to the East without blocking the traffic. The entrance to the tunnel was walled off and is now only just visible behind this workman's shed... I wonder what was inside it when they walled it off! One thing that the tour doesn't mention is the Highgate Vampire scandal. This started in 1969 when a man called David Farrant was passing one of the gates when he saw a ghostly apparition. He reported this and when the media got hold of it, they sensationalized it into a story about a vampire haunting the cemetery. They were helped by another local man who became famous as a self-styled vampire-slayer, complete with holy water and wooden stakes tucked into his belt etc. When the story was covered on television, hundreds of people turned up at the cemetery and tried to break in. On this HPANWO Radio show I interview David Farrant, see: http://hpanwo-radio.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/programme-192-podcast-david-farrant.html. Highgate Cemetery has a long tradition of being a place of massive supernatural activity. David himself was only there to try and find a ghost that many others had also related seeing. This paranormal interest connected with the cemetery goes on to this day. Oddly enough, I picked up a free information booklet at the entrance kiosk and am certain it was in my bag when I left. When I got home it was nowhere to be found. It might turn up, but if it doesn't... I can't see how it could have vanished by normal means. Both Ustane and myself very much enjoyed our visit to Highgate Cemetery. I will have to return one day soon and join a tour of the West Side. Below are some photographs I took that illustrate perfectly the spooky essence of Highgate Cemetery


ME! said...

Fantastic! So glad you enjoyed the trip.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, ME! It was great. West Side next