While Kensal Green may be the oldest and Brompton is definitely the liveliest, the most famous and decidedly creepy of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries in London is Highgate. Established in 1839, it is overgrown and dense with vines and thick groves of trees, and even on the bright day I visited there was an unsettling atmosphere in the air. Highgate is actually two cemeteries, East and West, with the West only being accessible by tour. It was there that I continued my epic day of cemetery exploring in London, having started with morning visits to Kensal Green, St. Mary’s, and Brompton.
The neighborhood of Highgate is up in Northern London, and is quite an expensive place to live, despite the foreboding cemetery in its midst. On my walk up the steep hill (the neighborhood has its name for a reason) I happened to see this statue of Dick Whittington’s Cat. The story goes that a poor boy named Dick Whittington became wealthy and finally mayor of London all through the rat-killing talents of his cat. This is all just a folktale, but an incredibly popular one. How this cat came to be in Highgate I am not quite sure.
Tours of West Highgate have to be booked in advance through the Friends of Highgate, which I foolishly did not, assuming that some people would probably drop out with the threat of rain. That did not happen. Luckily, I’d made friends with Rachel, basically a younger British version of myself, at the gate, who was able to sweetly ask the very intense gatekeeper to let us both in. For some reason, the gatekeeper didn’t believe that I had been waiting for the half hour I’d been there and said she was absolutely certain that I had just arrived. She was kind of intense. But I did make it through and everyone else working at the cemetery was lovely, including the guide who led our wander through Highgate’s grounds.
As you can tell from the photo at the beginning of this post, West Highgate’s original name was London Cemetery, and although it is now connected by name with East Highgate, they have long been connected in another way. A road divides their two entrances, but a mechanism in a tunnel can lower coffins from one side and have them travel beneath the road to the other without leaving consecrated ground. Our tour took us through much of Highgate, which is not that large of an area, but feels much bigger with the winding paths over hills.
The place is as Victorian Gothic as it gets, and now the forlorn angels and spired mausoleums are wound with vines or toppled from neglect. If you are interested, you can actually still be buried in West Highgate, and we even walked by the grave of Alexander Litvinenko, who you may remember was the former Russian KGB agent who was curiously poisoned and died in 2006. Most graves were older, though, some so covered with plants as to be completely anonymous.
There was a very strange incident of the “Highgate Vampire” that started back in the 1960s (yes, not 1860s mind you), that caused the media to go into a tumult. At that time, Highgate was dilapidated and abandoned, and people often came in and vandalized graves or just wandered around. Not surprisingly, especially if you’ve ever walked alone at night in a particularly strange place, let alone an empty Victorian cemetery, stories of hauntings broke out. Ghosts are one thing, and come with any sort of cemetery territory, but then a couple of these wanderers started to claim it was no ghost, but a medieval vampire that had recently reawakened. This claim was published in the newspapers, along with a call to destroy it. There grew up two factions with their own leaders who claimed they could expel the undead creature, and on one of their vampire hunts a mob of people overtook the place. It continued to get out of control, and in 1970 a corpse with no head whose body was burned was found near the catacombs in Highgate (we visited these on our tour, very creepy). Whether or not this was the result of someone trying to kill a vampire or maybe the work of a vampire is a mystery never fully explained. The whole affair mostly ended with a proposed “magicians duel” between two of the main “vampire hunters,” although that unfortunately never ended up happening, but their rivalry is remarkably ongoing. And maybe a vampire is, too, who knows…
If I were a vampire, I could think of no better lurking place than the Egyptian Avenue in Highgate. The grand, stone-walled corridor is lined with catacombs with the ornamentation of an ancient temple.
Egyptian Avenue funnels out to this even more strange sight of a giant cypress tree appearing to grow from a ring of tomb entrances. It’s known as the Circle of Lebanon, and reflects just how much those Victorians loved ancient archaeology. The tree is actually at ground level and it is the trench around it that was dug out. I’ve never seen anything like it. The tree was originally part of a 17th century garden, but is still flourishing, although our guide said that it might have some sort of tree disease, which would be quite sad.
No photos were allowed in the catacombs, but they were definitely eerie and dank. Probably full of vampires, bustling with ghosts.
Our tour took us by many of the notable graves (it was quite fashionable to be bured in Highgate, and Charles Dickens’ family is even there), including this of George Wombwell, who ran a traveling menagerie, and he is memorialized with a statue of his lion Nero.
A large dog, actually named Lion, guards the grave of Thomas Sayers, who was a champion bare-knuckle boxer. The crowd at his funeral stretched for miles past the grave, as he was extremely popular as a man of the people, and a statue of his dog, who was also chief mourner for his lost master, rests by the tomb.
There was also a stone animal on the grave of John Atcheler: a horse with a bowed neck, as if recently released of its rider.
This sleeping angel is probably the most photographed grave in Highgate, and the detailing is really amazing. You can see a photo of it here when it was much more overgrown in the 1970s.
I’m sure I could return to West Highgate many times and discover new details with each visit, or even graves that may have been uncovered since them. While the area is preserved in its overgrown state as something of a nature area, there is an effort to keep the graves from being permanently destroyed by chopping back some of the invasive vines.
After the tour of West Highgate, me and my new cemetery friend walked over to East Highgate, which you can explore without a tour. Although less ominous than the West, it still has plenty of tombs overtaken with green moss and ivy.
Honestly, I could have filled up my whole camera with dark photos of vines clutching graves, but I tried to stop myself. The above is my favorite, where the tree appears to be lifting the cross off the ground in a slow embrace. CREEPY!!!
The most famous permanent resident of East Highgate is Karl Marx. As you might be able to tell in this photo, just as we arrived at his tomb it started to rain. And while rain and black umbrellas do really add to the atmosphere of a cemetery, we made our way out of the gate for a much needed break from the heavy atmosphere of the Victorian cemeteries.