I suspect many people are drawn to Highgate Cemetery because it is the final resting place of the great granddaddy of communism, Karl Marx. Yet, wandering through some of the lonely overgrown walkways and people-free parts of the cemetery, is very atmospheric and a far more rewarding experience than just visiting Marx’s grave. I’d imagine that should you to be here at night it would be downright eerie, not to say terrifying.
Highgate Cemetery is everything you might expect from one of the most celebrated burial grounds in the world. Gothic tombs are overshadowed by creaking trees, ivy entwined headstones lean at alarming angles and cobweb-covered stone angels compete with brash and bold memorials to the great, the good and the normal. As befits a city like London, people from all over the world are buried here.
Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 and became a fashionable place for wealthier Londoners to be buried. A little over a hundred years later though, it had fallen into disrepair, but gained new purpose in the 1960s and ’70s as a film set for horror films, including Hammer House of Horror films. This just happened to coincide with a massive upsurge in supernatural sightings.
Ghosts and spectres were regularly spotted by nominally sane people; in one instance in the 1960s two school girls walking past the cemetery entrance on Swain’s Lane claimed to have seen bodies rising from their graves. Others ‘saw’ a ghoulish and terrifying spectre that hovered above the ground. This pales into insignificance next to the vampire hysteria that overcame people in the 1970s. In 1971, another school girl claimed to have been attacked by what became known as the Highgate Vampire.
Further sightings led, and I’m being serious here, to a vampire hunt. People were running around the cemetery in the middle of the night with crucifixes and wooden stakes. Seriously. Just in case you thought you misread that last part, there was an actual vampire hunt in London in the 1970s. Not London in the 1570s, London in the 1970s. Vampire ‘enthusiasts’ continue to converge on the cemetery today. Again. Seriously.
I knew Karl Marx was buried here. He spent most of his adult life in London, writing Das Capital between bouts of poverty and drunken revelry (the biography of Marx by Francis Wheen is very good on his life in London). Mary Ann Cross, better known as George Eliot, author of Middlemarch, is also buried here, along with many other famous Victorians. What surprised me, is that the cemetery is the final resting place of several modern-day giants.
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, has a simple memorial; legendary Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, lies only a few yards from Karl Marx himself; television game show presenter Jeremy Beadle (of Beadle’s About fame) has a bookshelf as a headstone which sits alongside a classic Victorian memorial; Punk impresario and puppeteer of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, has a supremely gaudy memorial – fittingly, not to say ironically, enlivened by two words of graffiti, No Future.
Perhaps the best part of walking through the cemetery though, is coming across the legacy of people who the world has forgotten, but who were remarkable in their own right. It may sound morbid, but I’ve visited cemeteries all over the world and the most fascinating thing is discovering the extraordinary lives of ‘ordinary’ people.
George Holyoake (1817-1906) was a famed secularist who coined the terms ‘secularism’ and ‘jingoism’; Yusuf Dadoo (1909-83), a South African communist and anti-apartheid activist; the American art historian and expert on all things Japanese, Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908); and perhaps my favourite, Ferdinand Barzetti (1836-1914), a British veteran of the American Civil War who fought for the New York Light Artillery under the name Thomas Shepherd. Ironically the half brother of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, is also buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Thankfully, today the cemetery is managed by a charitable organisation, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who have done a fantastic job of maintaining the cemetery and keeping it open for the public. There are two parts to it, East and West, and I only had time to visit the East, but I’m told West is also fascinating – you can only visit as part of a guided tour though. Either way, if you’re in London, a visit here is definitely worth the £4 entrance fee.* I can’t claim to have invented this phrase, its taken from here…it was just too good not to use.