Emerging out of the London Underground at Archway station, Northern Line I was welcomed by a thick, grey fog swirling lazily among the living. It certainly was appropriate weather for visiting a cemetery.
On the corner with Swains Lane I bumped into an old lady with long grey hair who started yelling at me to watch were I was going and who I thought I was, treading on her turf like that. I had to shake off the uncomfortable feeling the encounter had left me with and started up the road.
Already as a child I liked cemeteries and had wandered around many quiet small graveyards in France during the summer holidays. They were places of peace and contemplation generating an atmosphere that forced you to think or just let go. I have often asked myself why I’m drawn to these nostalgic places. In part, they remind me that I’m bound by time. By allowing me a glimpse of things lost to the past, I feel the present more strongly.
Designated Grade I on the list of English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England, Highgate Cemetery is part of what is called “the Magnificent Seven”. Seven cemeteries just outside of London were erected in order to cope with the number of dead people which needed burial. Just like the other burial places included in the Magnificent Seven list, Highgate became a very fashionable place for burials. However the dark aftermath of the World Wars saw a severe decline and eventual abandonment of the cemetery.
A massive restoration project in the 1980’s was started by the enthusiastic “Friends of Highgate Cemetery” This Trust was set up in 1975 and acquired the freehold of both East and West Cemeteries by 1981, since when they have had responsibility for the maintenance of the location. Thanks to their work, the cemetery is still a very special place to visit.
Highgate has two parts, the East and West Cemetery. For its protection, the older West Cemetery, which holds an impressive collection of Victorian mausoleums, gravestones and elaborately carved tombs, allows admission only in tour groups. The eastern section, which contains a mix of Victorian and modern statuary, can be toured unescorted. The cemetery opened in 1839 but it is said that Highgate was used as a mass burial ground for victims of the Great Plague in the 15th Century.
There are many illustrious people buried at Highgate and the Internet gives enough information on the history and interments at the cemetery. Karl Marx might be the most famous one but there were several others I did not know where laid to rest here: Douglas Adams, Michael Faraday and the parents of Charles Dickens to name a few. Besides having such famous people buried there, Highgate Cemetery has long been known for its stories on ghosts, vampires and other disturbing activities.
I had signed up for the guided tour of the West Cemetery. Entering the cemetery the fog had diminished and the sun was tentatively trying to shine its rays. I discovered the little group of waiting people gathered at the main place dominated by large pillars. The weather was as British as ever and everybody was wearing rain cloths, hats and sturdy shoes. I was glad I had put on my hiking boots, they would take me anywhere I wanted to go without tripping over rough ground.
We were welcomed by a small, older man looking quite ordinary but for his very tall walking stick and keen intelligent eyes that roved over our little group; Eyes that missed nothing and held a gleam of sharp humour and satire. This man certainly liked a joke and a pint. He put on his hat and waved his walking stick in the air. “Let us not waste time, the ghosts are bored and await their festivities. Please stay on the paths. The grounds are at a certain point quite treacherous and might cause you to trip and be faced with one of them hiding under a grave.” He was quite the character.
The tour took me into another world. My senses sharpened and I felt the thickness of the mist and almost the thin presences surrounding me. Did I see a fluttering movement from the corner of my eye? Was it a trick of the light, conspiring with the movement of the trees in the wind? Unfortunately I do not have such an active imagination but I could easily feel the somewhat eerie atmosphere of my surroundings steeped in history.
I wasn’t the only one who felt the other world present and one of the group members asked the guide about the ghosts that were supposed to haunt Highgate. The guide answered with a flourish: “Ah yes, my dear fellow. We have our dark shrouded figure, vampire, floating nun and raving grey haired woman, so indeed several regular customers here. For instance the lady with the long streaking grey hair is often spotted racing among the graves not able to find peace. She has killed her children you see?
Didn’t I just bump into that woman outside the cemetery?
The guide also told us about the Thornton piano at the East Cemetery which is sometimes heard: faint, almost translucent tones hovering over the burials and tombs like a sad melody. We moved on through the City of the Dead passing the grave of Tom Sayers. As a dog lover this grave held a particular appeal to me: In front of the grave is a statue of his faithful dog at his feet. It has become a famous picture of Highgate.
We moved along, speaking in hushed tones. The grounds of the cemetery have a feeling of neglect and decay but are also full of wild flowers, bushes, undergrowth and trees. We were reminded to watch our step carefully while walking along the winding paths. The Egyptian Avenue with its gloomy appearance and the Circle of Lebanon are particularly noteworthy but the whole atmosphere of overgrown paths, toppled monuments and wild greenery clinging to statues of angels and alike, is what makes this such a special place to visit.
It is little wonder that tales of ghostly figures are whispered here. I wondered too if the cemetery was haunted and turned my questioning eyes to the guide who seemed to read my mind: “Not haunted, my dear. It is a place of the dead, not the living and we are on their turf.”
We returned to the main place and while I thanked the extraordinary guide he parted with the words: “You have to keep an open mind about these things my dear, but do make sure your brain doesn’t fall out.” He winked at me and went on his way.
Both parts of the cemetery are still used for burials today.