London Drum

Highgate Cemetery – Guided Tour of West Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery
Where? Highgate Cemetery, Swain’s Lane, Highgate · Web: Opening times? 10 AM to 5 PM (Mon-Sun, Mar-Oct); 10 AM to 4 PM (Mon-Sun, Nov-Feb); Last entry 1 hour before closing Visiting hours may change Price? Adults £10.00; Children £6.00 (8-17); Infants free entry (under-6) Entry charges may change Time required? A typical visit is east cemetery: 1½-2 hours – west cemetery guided tour: 1¼-1½ hours Buses: 143, 210, 271, C2, C11 Bus fares Trains: The closest station is Highgate Northern Train fares

Craig’s review… Highgate Cemetery is split into two and you can only enter the western half on a guided tour (I’m doing that later today). But I thought I’d check out the eastern half first to see if it’s worth the money.

The East Cemetery

Everyone will tell you that it’s the lesser of the two but all of the plots on the first bend are monumental – some of the tombs wouldn’t look out of place in Westminster Abbey. One guy has surrounded himself by a choir of angels all weeping and wailing like he’s their long lost love. But they are stone women. And he is a bone man. Whatever loving he’s done in the past it is over now.

I’ve just noticed two ninety-year-olds buried in the same concrete casket but his name has worn out, whilst his missus lives on in bright white letters. The poor, downtrodden husband… “in affectionate remembrance of Maude”, it says, “and her loving husband” who shall remain nameless. Jesus Christ… I just got a scare as a fox burst out of the undergrowth and bounded over some stones about ten steps from where I’m standing. I had another little shiver five minutes ago when I looked out across the woods and saw the back of somebody’s head. I thought it might have been a punter in a moment of private prayer so I just stood there waiting for him to finish. But he didn’t finish. It turned out that I was staring at a statue.

I probably shouldn’t spend so much time in graveyards but I think they’re more beautiful than the parks. And the more they let it go, the more beautiful it gets. At first sight everything seems to be ruined – the trees are overgrown, the branches are snapped and cracked, and the gravestones are cracked and shattered too. Everybody gets buried twice in here: the first time in a coffin and then again in a knotted tangle of nettles, weeds and prickly black berries.

The gardeners have clearly given up in some places, and who can blame them? It’s not as if the dead will complain. In many ways they are the perfect customers. They fork out for a burial plot and then you don’t hear a peep out of them ever again. You’ve just got to remember to dig their hole deep enough so they can’t get out. That is what would worry me if I were a gravedigger. I’d be digging down another twenty-feet at least, just to make sure they can’t crawl out and ask for their money back.

The gardeners can’t get near some of the temples anyway because they’re wrapped around in thick thorns like chunky chains to keep the burglars out. You’d literally need a chainsaw to break in. Nature has even managed to crack some of the plaques and left them broke and busted. I’m looking at a tomb right now which even seems to be open! It’s a bit too dark to see clearly… but there appears to be some dirty planks of wood down there and a crinkled crisp packet that got washed in with the rain. But that’s how you get remembered, isn’t it? When I leave here today I will have totally forgotten the names of all of the rich people in their chained-up temples, but I will still have a soft spot for poor Lucy Edwards, buried in a broken box with a bag of cheesy Wotsits.

I’ve just come across one with a cold cup of tea on top. I suppose his mate must have sat down for five minutes and had a Thermos flask of tea to share with him. I really wanted to tip it all over the soil otherwise how is he supposed to drink it? But you can’t fiddle with things like that so I left it alone. He’s probably lying in his tomb shouting and swearing at his buddy for being so thoughtless.

This lady has a fair few knick-knacks on top of her box. Flowers and fir cones, candles and lanterns… maybe a lady who’s scared of the dark? Hence all the bright lights for nighttime. Nobody ever comes to light them, though – you only get so much love when you’re dead. They’ll place some candles on your grave but don’t expect them to catch the bus up to Highgate every night to light them. Once the sun goes down you’re on your own.

Karl Marx’s two graves

The most famous grave in the Eastern Cemetery is Karl Marx, but did you know that he actually has two tombs? The original one is worth seeking out with the map if you don’t mind traipsing into the middle (you will be given a map when you enter). If you manage to find it then congratulations – it’s not easy. It’s just a very faded slab of smashed stone nowadays, and much more in keeping with his working class sympathies.

Before I leave the Eastern Cemetery I just want to do something in case you decide to visit yourself. I want to find a lonely old grave that hasn’t received a visitor in years so we can both stand there and toast his health together. Are you up for that?

Okay… I have found the perfect grave. Grab a map from the main gate and follow the path towards Karl Marx, but take a right straight after the grave of Richard Smith (marked as ‘R Smith’ on the map). Keep looking towards the right as you walk down that overgrown path, about two tombs back from the front, and hopefully you will catch sight of a headstone with a handshake on top. I can’t even make out the name on it because it’s so faded and worn… is it William something? This guy is a nameless nobody and we’re probably the only visitors he’s had in a hundred years. But it seems like the perfect place for us to stop and shake hands through the pages of this book. Nice to meet you.

Guided tour of West Cemetery

Two hours later: I have just finished my guided tour of the Western Cemetery and it was easily the best cemetery I have ever been too. I think I’ve just discovered where I want to be buried. (I can’t wait to die now – that’s how great it is!)

There were about twenty people in my tour group which consisted mainly of old tourists in tailored shorts, and the guide was an elderly gent who was pretty much perfect for a tour like this – you don’t need comedy and Hollywood in a graveyard. He was slow talking and slow walking, which gave you plenty of time to enjoy the views.

Egyptian Avenue & Circle of Lebanon

The Western Cemetery is smaller than the eastern half and the biggest difference is its monumental buildings. The eastern half is mainly graves and tombstones, whereas the western half has got the Egyptian Avenue, entered through two giant obelisks. Then you come to the Circle of Lebanon which is a solid ring of stone doors buried in the side of a grassy hill, topped off by the spookiest tree in London. (If you’ve ever heard of the Barrowdowns in The Lord of the Rings then come here and re-live the scene.)

Inside the cemetery’s catacombs

After that he tempts you right inside the catacombs which is dank and black, save for a shaft of light shining through the skylight. All of the alcoves are stacked with rotting coffins sitting silent on the shelves. And add some spiders and flies and heat up the dusty air another ten degrees and that’s the catacombs.

So in conclusion then, and bearing in mind that Highgate isn’t exactly in the centre of town, would I recommend a visit? Well, the western half is easily the best cemetery I have ever been to, but I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much if you can’t get a tour ticket. I would be just as happy walking around the eastern bit. But then again I’m a morbid kind of bloke, who likes to spend his free time in a cemetery.

Worth a visit? Value for money? Good for kids? Easy to get to?

I also recommend… If you enjoy this then try Brompton Cemetery (catch a tube from Highgate to West Brompton)

London Squire bookThe owns and has spent the last decade reviewing the capital’s landmarks, attractions and hotels. His guidebook is available from Amazon

Your comments and questions

Pete It would be nice if they let you walk around the West Cemetery on your own as well. Why don't they do that? There are only two ways to get into the West Cemetery... with a tour guide or an undertaker

Iain H My dad is buried on the west side so I have a pass but you still can't walk around without a guide but I do anyway. I was shocked to see Jean Simmons grave

Craig I guess it must be a health and safety thing. It's pretty overgrown around there (that's what makes it so beautiful, I think). But if you trip over in that undergrowth then they might not find you for weeks.

Mags Can you visit George Michael's grave? Where is it?

Craig Hi Mags. His grave is in the West Cemetery which is usually only accessible on a guided tour, but his grave is not part of the tour route. Apparently they're thinking of opening the West Cemetery up to unaccompanied people, but at the time of writing they're still thinking about it. But his family wanted to keep it safe from fans turning it into a shrine so his grave is unmarked - there's no name on the headstone. So unless you already know where it is there's no easy way of finding it.

Langdon A truly magical and mysterious place and we had a wonderful afternoon exploring the west half with our guide. The overgrown plants and trees just make it even more mysterious and I think it would lose all its beauty if they tidied it up. This is one garden that definitely doesn't need a gardener!

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