My next novel The Sleeping Angel, due out this summer, is set in and around Highgate Cemetery in 1870, 1970 and the present day. I visited Highgate Cemetery on a baking hot day in September 2011 and it’s such a wonderful, magical place that I wanted to share some of its beauty with you.
Overcrowding and insanitary conditions were so bad in London’s cemeteries by the nineteenth century, that seven new private cemeteries were built around the outskirts of the capital in the 1830s and early 1840s. They were Kensal Green, Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets and collectively they were known as The Magnificent Seven.
Highgate Cemetery is in two halves (East and West) either side of Swain’s Lane, a steep, narrow, walled lane that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. You almost expect to see a horse-drawn hearse clattering down the hill followed by a procession of black-clad mourners.
Access to the oldest part of the cemetery (the western side) is by guided tour only, so I joined my fellow tourists outside the Victorian Gothic entrance which originally housed two chapels, one for those baptised into the Church of England, and one for dissenters.
Through the entrance is a large, paved courtyard flanked by a curving colonnade of arches where mourners could gather. In the centre of the colonnade is a flight of stone steps which lead up to the burial grounds.
This is where the magic really starts. Highgate Cemetery is a wonderfully chaotic tangle of gravestones, trees, plants and wildlife. On the day I visited, the sunlight filtering through the leaves bathed everything in a green light. Foxes stood on the path watching us before scurrying away into the undergrowth.
In some places the gravestones seem to be jostling each other for space.
In other places nature has almost completely taken over.
As in Victorian society, so at Highgate some “addresses” are better than others. For those who could afford it the best places to be buried were the prestigious Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon, with their magnificent architecture and above-ground burial vaults.
There is something Dickensian about the way Highgate Cemetery ranges from the humble and overcrowded to the grand and stately. Sir John Betjeman described the cemetery as a “Victorian Valhalla” and I think that description is absolutely spot on.
In future posts I’ll explore some of the statuary of Highgate and who’s buried here.