We all know Highgate Cemetery. We have seen it a hundred times. On films and tv, on album covers, in comics and illustrations. On all those gothic posters with pretty vampire girls in tight corsets. Images of Highgate or versions of it have become the epitome of Gothic horror in our collective consciousness.
On the day of my visit, there was an outrageous absence of mists and not a corset to be seen, but what can you do?
Highgate is one of the “Magnificent Seven” new graveyards planned by the city in the 1830s to house its increasing death toll in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, which inflated the London population to a bursting point with jobseekers from the countryside.
Designed by architect Stephen Geary and landscaper David Ramsey, it soon became a fashionable site where the wealthy competed to erect the most lavish mausoleums.
Today, after many years of neglect, the park and the cemetery have grown into each other, creating a place of wild beauty where it’s not always safe to venture on your own.
Highgate East, bigger and slightly younger, has been maintained a little better, as it is still in use, and can be visited normally. But the West park remains firmly locked unless you are on a guided tour. This is to protect both the site and the visitors.
The entrance, flanked by small turrets, resembles a miniature Gothic castle, whose solemn iron gates open through a short passage on to a semicircular cobbled courtyard wide enough for a coach and six horses to turn around. This open space is encased in a peristyle of white columns where the mourners could gather and take cover from inclement weather. From here, a wide staircase takes us inside the graveyard.
One of my reasons for visiting Highgate Cemetery was the Rosetti plot. Once there, I discovered that it is not part of the tour because its location is too overgrown and not safe to trek a whole group through. There is no path. However, after my inquiries, our guide asked me and my companion to stay behind when the tour was over and, since ours had been the last group of the day, he took us to the Rosettis.
I had been brought here by my fascination for two remarkable Victorian ladies related to the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti.
His sister Christina, poet of Goblin Market fame, and his wife and model Elizabeth Siddal, who was taken young by depression and laudanum. A poet and artist in her own right, Lizzie’s delicate features, tall, elegant figure and exuberant red hair were immortalized in many of the best known pre-Raphaelite paintings as the quintessential beauty of her time.
The plot, which houses several members of the Rosetti family (although not Dante Gabriel) is a modest double tombstone stained by age and moss, and the moment was made even more hauntingly sad by the fact that we had to step on other graves to reach it, because they are so tightly packed that one can only walk on hallowed ground.
A delicate ecosystem has developed here, and Highgate is now listed as Grade 1 in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England, but the landscaping and restoration projects have a long way to go, as they subsist on donations and volunteer work, and many areas are still in danger of cave-ins or too overgrown to explore without a machete. Which is not an option, since all the flora and fauna are protected.
Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie toured the Victorian British Fairs with its fifteen wagons of exotic animals and a brass band. Wombwell bought lions, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, a gorilla, llamas, ocelots, panthers, kangaroos, wildcats, tigers, zebras, monkeys and even a rhino (“the real unicorn of scripture”) from merchant ships that travelled to Africa, Australia and South America. He bred many animals, amongst them the first lion born in captivity in Britain, whom he named William after William Wallace and had trained for lion-baiting, where the animal would fight packs of dogs.
His other famous lion, Nero, was by contrast a very docile creature. So much so that many Victorian children enjoyed riding it at the fairs.
Wombwell’s menagerie enjoyed such popularity that he was invited to perform for the Queen on no less than three occasions and Prince Albert summoned him when the Royal dogs kept inexplicably dying. Wombwell found the cause (poisoned water) and as payment he requested some oak timber from the Royal George, a vessel recently salvaged, to make himself a coffin.
The forest of trees and marble gravestones is so tightly knit that one can never see too far. Coupled with the fact that it covers a steep hill, Highgate feels like a much bigger place than it really is, and it would be very easy to get lost here if you leave the main road.
Our guide stopped by an expensive-looking grave guarded by a marble mastiff and he described its occupant as the David Beckham of his day. More than 100,000 people gathered for his funeral. His loyal dog, Lion, officiated as chief mourner.
Tom Sayers was a pugilist who won all his fights but one and retired a champion. He was such a popular hero that, on his retirement, £3,000 was collected amongst his fans, allowing him to become a publican for the rest of his life. But diabetes, tuberculosis and heavy drinking took him at the age of thirty nine.
A true celebrity of his time, Sayers is all but forgotten today.
The catacombs, despite their name, are not underground. But they posses a gloomy, dusty, rarefied air that makes them the most unsettling place on the entire tour. A temporary storage space, although it became permanent for many, this honeycomb of niches makes no effort to disguise or embellish its purpose. Because the ceiling is vaulted, the spaces at the top are smaller and were often used for children. Here we were told the sad and rather perplexing story of a forgotten, nameless wife left behind. This lady and her husband’s coffins were placed in the catacombs at some point, awaiting transport to their permanent resting place but, when the time came, only the husband was taken. There is no record of where he went or what their names are, so she remained at Highgate. One can easily picture her melancholic spectre, waiting patiently like a lonely passenger on a deserted station.
Near the top of the hill we find the majestic Egyptian Avenue, which ascends into the Circle of Lebanon, the centrepiece of Highgate built around a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon that was already old long before the site was selected for a cemetery.
Here, the mausoleums are like little gothic houses, and indeed Victorian families used to bring a picnic and spend time with their deceased loved ones inside them.
Nearby, alone in a clearing, stands the recently restored mausoleum erected by Julius Beer, owner of The Observer, for his eight year old daughter Ada. Considerably bigger than any of its neighbours, the Beer monument is really a small marble chapel crowned by a pyramidal roof. Inside, the exquisite mosaic on the floor is too fragile to be tread on but our guide opens the iron double doors and we marvel at the ceiling covered in gold-leaf and the heartbreaking sculpture on the altar, a little girl in the arms of a crying angel, her face modelled from Ada’s death mask.
As social trends and fashions changed, it was reflected in the sculpted memento mori. Egyptian columns and pyramids stand side by side with Greek and Roman urns, sober crypts of neo-classical influence and the most elaborate of carvings.
There are innumerable famous or interesting interments in Highgate, like writers Radcliffe Hall and George Eliot, Charles Dickens’parents, wife and brother or criminal mastermind and philanthropist Adam Worth, the likely inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, but perhaps the anonymous ones are the most fascinating, like the occupant of the Sleeping Angel grave, “Mary, who fell asleep in 1909.”
Highgate Cemetery closed its doors in 1975 due to the London Cemetery Company declaring bankruptcy. On the same year, the Friends of Highgate was created, a charity-funded society that works to protect and restore the site to this day.
Highgate features prominently in several popular novels like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (as Kingstead), Audrey Niffenegger’s “Her Fearful Symmetry”, Neil Gaiman’s “Graveyard book”, Tracy Chevalier’s “Fallen Angels” and Barbara Hambly’s “Those Who Hunt the Night” and numerous British horror films.During the 60s, 70s and 80s, Highgate sustained irreparable damage due to vandalism, devil-worshipping and black magic ceremonies and film crews (famously, Hammer Horror) and this is part of the reason why access is so restricted today.
There is a wealth of history, art and stories to be explored at Highgate and, even within the constraints of a guided tour, much can be discovered.
Of course, a single visit is hardly enough.
I’ll be going on my third one soon.