Monday 12 November 2018

Touring Highgate Cemetery: A Day Out with a Difference

highgate-cemetery, london, travel

This post has been a while in the making (given that I visited back in August!) but I am super excited to share all the details of my summer trip to North London to take a tour of the iconic Highgate Cemetery. From famous graves to outstanding funerary architecture, inspired by everyone from the Romans to the Egyptians, find out why I believe that this Victorian masterpiece is a true hidden gem.

Visiting Highgate Cemetery has long been a bucket list item for my mum, so the trip was actually a surprise visit for her 50th birthday earlier this year. She assured me that she loved the surprise trip and relished the opportunity to get to see the wonderful architecture first-hand, but I was also pleasantly surprised by how good the tour was.

However, first things first - what's the story of Highgate Cemetery?

highgate-cemetery, london, travel

The History of Highgate Cemetery

Originally designated and opened in 1839, Highgate Cemetery was designed to help overcome the rising issue of London's increasing population (bringing with it an increasing number of dead) and a lack of suitable ground for burials. Highgate Cemetery was created on 17 acres of land which formerly belonged to the Ashurst Estate and was split into two halves - the East and West Cemeteries. Highgate was beautifully sculpted and landscaped by a team of renowned garden designers and landscape architects prior to its official opening.

The impressive architecture and prestigious surroundings afforded the cemetery a unique air of luxury and quality - it was clear that only the rich upper classes were welcome at Highgate. Today, some of the most imposing graves and monuments in the cemetery reflect the attitude that wealthy Victorians would have had towards their deceased relatives - in stark contrast to the pauper's graves and mass burial sites that existed for the lower classes elsewhere in London.

Sadly, the demand for 'showy' funerals and elitist monuments and funerary architecture was declining rapidly by the 1900s. With decreasing demand and a lack of interest, the struggling company was finally declared bankrupt in 1960 and when the last of the funds ran out, Highgate was closed and its future was left hanging in the balance.

In 1975, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed, which currently manages and oversees the upkeep and condition of the cemetery to this day. Although it is impossible to fully reverse the effects of abandonment and nature's course, the Friends do a remarkable job in maintaining as much of the site as possible, while still opening the cemetery to visitors and running tours of the West Cemetery an impressive 363 days a year.

highgate-cemetery, london, travel

Visiting Highgate Cemetery

We visited Highgate on a very hot and sunny Monday in the middle of Britain's uncharacteristically long heatwave during the summer of 2018. You can visit the East Cemetery at any time and are free to wander and explore, but the entrance to the West Cemetery is strictly by guided tour only. I had booked us an early afternoon tour slot for the West Cemetery, so we decided to do the tour first and then stroll around the East Cemetery afterwards.

The tour was comprised of about 20 people, led by a very helpful and knowledgeable guide. We did a circular tour of the West Cemetery, stopping off to visit some of the most notable graves and impressive monuments on the way. Although my personal favourite was the Egyptian Avenue, we were even lucky enough to step into the Terrace Catacombs and see some of the original coffins still in situ! Our guide had plenty of interesting facts to share all the way around, making the tour a truly worthwhile experience.

After a brief rest, we then took a slow stroll through the East Cemetery. We picked up a couple of handy maps as we entered, marking off the graves we were particularly interested in seeing so we could plan a rough route through the cemetery. Karl Marx is arguably the biggest draw in the East Cemetery, but names such as Douglas Adams, George Eliot, and William Foyle were of bigger interest to us.

We left Highgate Cemetery after a very enjoyable, informative day out - our next goal is to come back and visit again in the winter. Highgate in the snow must be a true sight to see!

To find out how to get to Highgate Cemetery or to book your tour place for the West Cemetery, check out the website.

Have you ever been to Highgate Cemetery? Let me know in the comments below!

1 comment:

  1. It is nice to explore urban cemeteries. I have been to a few in Europe, mostly in Italy. They offer a moment of peace from the bustling of a major city such as Milan.