Highgate Cemetery, A Victorian Valhalla*

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.

Karl Marx's grave, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it.” Karl Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

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.

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Headstone, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Headstone, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Headstones, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Headstones, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Stone angel, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Stone angel, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

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.

Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Highgate Cemetery, Highgate Village, London, England

Highgate Cemetery, Highgate Village, London, England

Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Highgate Cemetery, London, England

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.

Headstone, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Headstone, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Headstone, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Headstone, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

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.

Grave of novelist 'George Eliot' (far right), Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of novelist ‘George Eliot’ (far right), Highgate Cemetery, London, England

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.

Grave of Malcolm McLaren, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of Malcolm McLaren, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of Douglas Adams, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of Douglas Adams, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of Jeremy Beadle, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of Jeremy Beadle, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

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.

Grave of 'Thomas Shepherd', Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of ‘Thomas Shepherd’, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of Ernestine and William Rose, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

Grave of Ernestine and William Rose, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

George Holyoake, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

George Holyoake, Highgate Cemetery, London, England

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.

North London Street Art

I have a fascination with street art, particularly the sort with an overt message, political or otherwise. Anyone who has seen any of Banksey’s work will know the sort of direct or absurd statement that appeals.

I used to work near the Houses of Parliament; everyday I’d walk along the River Thames next to Westminster Bridge, where a group of stencilled rats carrying a rocket launcher and TNT seemed ready to blow up Parliament. A Guy Fawkes-esuqe satire on the relationship people have with politicians for our times. Another stencilled rat I passed every day en route to the office carried a sign simply saying, Go Back to Bed – a radical message to London’s commuters.

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Sometimes though, it is difficult to interpret the meaning of some street art. I’m not suggesting that this is up there with the mysteries of the pyramids or the Sphinx, but occasionally I find myself smiling about some bizarre spray-painted riddle. On my recent walk up to Highgate from Finsbury Park, I came across a good example of this amongst lots of other spray paint creations. The message read:

Only Pickin Daisies, street art, London, England

Only Pickin Daisies, street art, London, England

Only Pickin Daisies, street art, London, England

Only Pickin Daisies, street art, London, England

Only Pickin Daisies, street art, London, England

Only Pickin Daisies, street art, London, England

It was written on the top of a wall on a road bridge…and made me laugh.

Only Pickin Daisies, street art, London, England

Only Pickin Daisies, street art, London, England

Amongst the rest of the work, was a piece I took as a swipe at the gentrified people who live in Islington, a spray paint pig and a street art Jackson Pollock.

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Street art Imitates Jackson Pollock, London, England

Street art Imitates Jackson Pollock, London, England

London’s green links, Finsbury Park to Hampstead Heath…and a poem

Say what you like about London, but it has some of the best walking of any city in the country and, for a city this size, probably the world. One of the ‘hidden’ joys of living here is that you can find walking routes all over the city, often avoiding the horrendous traffic…and, to give Londoners due credit, the people of this city walk further on average each year than residents of any other part of the United Kingdom. Hard to believe, but true.

When I moved to London twelve years ago, I lived at a friend’s flat in Finsbury Park for six months. Having just returned to London after fourteen months in Latin America, I find myself a guest of her hospitality again. Named after a Victorian-era park, Finsbury Park is an area of great ethnic and cultural diversity. There is a particularly large Turkish community – making it the area to head to for good Turkish food.

The New River, Finsbury Park, London, England

The New River, Finsbury Park, London, England

Sign between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Sign between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Finsbury Park opened in 1869, in response to the needs of an ever expanding and urbanised population, but inside the park is a clue to a more extensive history…also responding to the increasing urbanisation of London: The New River. Although separated by 250 years, both the river and the park give an indication of the needs of Londoners as the city developed towards its current monstrous size.

Thankfully, modern-day city planners and politicians (with encouragement from environmental campaigners), have conspired to link many of London’s green spaces together. From Finsbury Park you can walk an urban trail, formerly a nineteenth century commuter railway line, unmolested by cars all the way to Highgate. Here, the ancient Highgate Wood awaits exploration.

The former railway line linking Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

The former railway line linking Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Like most bits of London, the spray-paint mafia has been at work along the trail. If all street art is subversive, some is more political, with more social commentary, than others…

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Street art between Finsbury Park and Highgate, London, England

Once part of the huge Forest of Middlesex, and mentioned in the Doomsday Book, its a miracle that the small but lovely chunk of ancient forest that is Highgate Wood has survived into the twenty-first century. Wandering along its leaf-dappled trails, its easy to ignore the giant A1 road (or the Great North Way to give it its historic name) which passes nearby. From Highgate Wood its a short walk to Highgate Village, and one of the world’s most celebrated burial sites, Highgate Cemetery.

Highgate Wood,  London, England

Highgate Wood, London, England

Highgate Wood,  London, England

Highgate Wood, London, England

Road sign, Highgate,  London, England

Road sign, Highgate, London, England

Even if we ignore all the literary giants buried in the cemetery, Highgate’s place in the literary world is assured: it was home of the Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, friend and colleague of John Milton, as well as the Romantic poet, and legendary opium addict, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like many others, I studied Marvell’s poem To His Coy Mistress at school. As a heartfelt plea to the carnal, it remains an all time favourites (see below).

Plaque to Andrew Marvell, Highgate, London, England

Plaque to Andrew Marvell, Highgate, London, England

House in Highgate, London, England

House in Highgate, London, England

Alms houses in Highgate, London, England

Alms houses in Highgate, London, England

Historic signs in Highgate, London, England

Historic signs in Highgate, London, England

Flowers and a light outside a pub in Highgate, London, England

Flowers and a light outside a pub in Highgate, London, England

House and gate, Highgate,  London, England

House and gate, Highgate, London, England

Highgate Village is distinctive, not to say aloof, from the rest of London. It was a separate village until engulfed by urban sprawl, yet, thanks conservation efforts, it still maintains its historic feel. This fact, and its location on the edge of Hampstead Heath, makes it one of the most expensive places to live in London. Luckily it has a couple of nice pubs in which to rest and take the view of houses you’ll never be able to afford.
Pub sign, Highgate,  London, England

Pub sign, Highgate, London, England

Refreshed, walk (un)steadily down hill for a short distance and, as if by magic, you’ll suddenly find yourself in the wondrous open spaces of Hampstead Heath, and its famous swimming ‘ponds’. Before injury scuppered my passion for running, I regularly ran on Hampstead Heath’s trails, up and down hills and through its woodland. Its a magical place to be, with views all the way to the giant skyscrapers in central London.

The view back to Highgate from Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath,  London, England

The view back to Highgate from Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath, London, England

Returning to Highgate en route back to Finsbury Park, I noticed a skeleton in a window…

Skeleton in a window, Highgate, London, England

Skeleton in a window, Highgate, London, England

London is an ancient city, you don’t need to look far to find death. In Highgate that means Highgate Cemetery, but that is for another day…

…and here’s that Andrew Marvell poem:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.