The Haunting Beauty of Highgate
Highgate Cemetery in North London is world-famous for its monuments to the dead and its lush, haunting atmosphere
(You can see all of my Highgate Photographs by visiting the Spooky Isles Facebook Page here.)
Highgate Cemetery could well be the world’s most famous final resting place. And certainly no place on the planet has such a reputation as a spooky place.
Today I ventured on the Northern Line tube to visit the cemetery for the first time (despite having lied in London for over a year) and found it to be an amazingly atmospheric and Gothic place to visit.
Highgate Cemetery was built over 37 acres in 1837 when the graveyards of London could no longer cope with its increasing dead population. It is part of a series of seven private burial grounds built at the time. Highgate is still a working cemetery and there are about 167,000 people buried in the cemetery in about 52,000 graves.
The cemetery is a little simpler than I first imagined. As a child reading about this cemetery, I got the impression it was a wild overgrown jungle of trees, long grass and plants covering the mossy graves and tombs.
That may have been the case in the past. And while it is still thick with lush vegetation, the cemetery is far better manicured than I had imagined it would be. The lush gardens had been dampened by the usually wet July weather, so it was a little slippery. Intrepid mountaineering was needed to get to some of the higher graves.
Firstly, I visited the eastern section, paying the £3 entry fee and £1 for my small guide to the famous graves.
Surprisingly, other than the grave of Karl Marx, the famed German political theorist, Highgate doesn’t really have that many household names. Yes, there are many notable people buried there. For instance, Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is buried there, as is actor Sir Ralph Richardson. But for the most part, I had to read in the guide who the people actually were to be impressed by them. Sir Sidney Nolan, the Australian painter is buried there, so for me that was an interesting grave to visit.
For Spooky fans, one of the notable residents is Anthony Shaffer (1926-2001), the Oscar-nominated English novelist, playwright and screenwriter, who wrote the play Sleuth and its film version, as well the screenplays for Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972) and The Wicker Man (1973) with Robin Hardy. His wife, Diane Cilento, who acted in The Wicker Man, is also buried at Highgate.
The Eastern part of Highgate was built in 1854 and is mostly graves. It doesn’t have as many of the famous crypts and catacombs as the Western side and you are allowed to walk around the Eastern section by yourself. The older Western section can only be entered on a guided tour, which costs £7 for adults.
I found that the Eastern section was only half as cool as I expected and a place like Kensal Green cemetery was much more fun.
Once I was done with looking at the small selection of famous graves in the Eastern section, I went across the road to line up for the Western tour. I didn’t have to wait long and soon I was off traipsing around the more recognisable Highgate.
Much of what you know of Highgate is from photographs. Since returning from my trip today there isn’t anything I photographed you couldn’t find on the net. Whereas you walk around the centre of London, you might find an angle of a monument or building that might not have been not seen before, I doubt that is the case at Highgate.
The tour wasn’t very long and I can’t say there was any great insight into the place.
My main reason for going to Highgate Cemetery today was that last night I read about the Highgate Vampire and wanted to have a look at the crypts. When I mentioned this to the guide, hoping to discover where the alleged action surrounding the media hysteria happened during the 1970s, she was quite abrupt and dismissed what I was saying as if I was some kind of idiot. I didn’t ask her where the vampires were and I didn’t ask her if any of it was true. All I asked was where the craziness happened.
I understand that the Highgate Vampire Case caused a lot of vandalism in the 1970s and that it would be a touchy subject. But the case is part of the cemetery’s history and for my question to be dismissed so out of hand was rude and very off-putting. All she had to say was the cemetery tries to play down the vampire case to stop further vandalism attacks from undesirables. Instead, I was made to feel uncomfortable – very poor behaviour indeed.
(As a matter of interests, some people were trying to jump over the wall when we were there and quickly scared off by the guide!)
Highgate West section has amazing architecture and its avenues of crypts are a sight to behold. They are almost like lines of houses for the dead. Unfortunately, I was unable to take photographs inside the crypts as the Cemetery doesn’t allow it. In the past, people had used the photographs in disrespectful manner, which I can only imagine means on a website like this.
I feel many places like Highgate attract visitors for their creepiness but do not want to acknowledge that is the reason we are there. Glamis Caslte in Scotland was the same when I visited in 2001.
Famously, Highgate Cemetery was the filming location for many great British horror films, like The Abominable Dr Phibes, From Beyond The Grave and Taste The Blood of Dracula. Most places celebrate the films that were filmed on their location and tell you about them, but our only dismissed them, inferring that Highgate had whored itself for the money in the 1970s by letting the film crews in. You can insert you own comments here about how you feel about that statement.
Anyway, the tour went for about an hour and we were shown about a dozen graves and told a handful stories about some of the occupants of the graves. Some were interesting, some were slightly interesting. As Spooky Isles had a wonderful former Highgate tour guide write her own views about the cemetery here earlier in the year – which you can read here - I knew most of the stories.
But despite the fact I was disappointed with the tour guide’s attitude and that Highgate was smaller than I expected, the visit was well worth it and marked another landmark in my journey of Spooky discovery!
I urge you all to go.
By the way, here is a Youtube video the tour guide mentioned during the walk. She said the song was rubbish, but I quite like it. I think it is Kate Bush. The photographs were taken in 1981 and then in 2006 showing the cemetery before it had been “pruned”. Visiting back in the old days must have been great!