Friday, 1 September 2017

Friday 1st September 2017

I’ve been in London for a few days and with a friend (who has been persuaded to appreciate gravestones – she has even spent a couple of days with us on our survey in North Yorkshire) took the opportunity to visit the famous Highgate Cemetery. Born and brought up in North London, I know I have been there as a child, but remembered very little about it. It is an extraordinary place, but the volunteers who run the place have a huge task on their hands to maintain it. The main circular path is well-kept – of course, this is lined with all the most ornate and showy monuments, as you would expect. 

Off the main paths are side avenues, some more “romantic” than others, under the shade of trees and undergrowth of thick ivy. The grave plots here are crammed in so tight you cannot get close to the masses of ivy-clad gravestones behind them without stepping on another memorial plot. 

The great majority are tilting, and many have parts missing or broken – the result of years of neglect before the present day Friends of Highgate Cemetery were formed and took on the huge task of caring for the place. New graves are still being added – along the main path especially, there are many modern gravestones nestled against Victorian counterparts. 

The curious mix is enchanting, as is the cosmopolitan mix of nationalities and cultures represented. Many of the latter are clustered together in their own zones, while there are other areas where different cultures lie in a diverse mix.

Highgate Cemetery has a very different atmosphere to Arnos Vale in Bristol – the latter feels like an open space, a garden landscape where people go to stroll or walk the dog – which was one of the original intentions of large urban cemeteries; at Highgate there is more of a sense of inner reflection and meditation, which can feel quite morbid and “gothic”. The monuments – whether hidden or visible – take centre stage rather than the landscaping which has long disappeared under the ivy and the overcrowding, creating a romantic atmosphere that many visitors may find a little forbidding. For me, of course, there was the sheer frustration of not being able to investigate the gravestones, and look at them in detail. That apart, I found it very beautiful and charming. The volunteers are doing a wonderful job against huge odds – and proved very friendly and helpful too.

Large privately run cemeteries like this are such a stark contrast to the little parish churchyards that we are currently studying. The ostentatiousness of the larger Victorian memorials is sometimes even outstripped by modern monuments in such places. Apart from the sheer size of many of the memorials along the main path, the variety of types of crosses and angels was particularly striking at Highgate. It is sad, though, that the vast majority of Victorian gravestones of a more modest and typical form will probably never be revealed, but will forever lie hidden under the thick growth of ivy. This does give a somewhat distorted impression of the nature of Victorian memorialisation. 

On the other hand, it does make for a lovely nature reserve - and a haven for local cats to explore.

Unfortunately we were unable to visit the West Side which is only accessible by guided tour – We fully intend to book a tour well in advance next time.

Jane Lunnon

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