Highgate Cemetery: Tales from beyond the grave

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Highgate Cemetery, north London, first opened its gates in 1839, one of the earliest municipal cemeteries to be founded in the UK. The two separate burial grounds, East Cemetery and West Cemetery, contain the final resting places of more than 170,000 citizens of London, among them many celebrities and the rich and famous of the past two centuries.

The grounds are vast, especially the older and more characterful West Cemetery, which can now only be visited as part of a guided tour. Highgate West is a sprawling metropolis of the dead. It is easy to lose one’s way amongst the meandering paths and rows of great tombstones, weather-beaten and crumbling, the inscriptions lost to the handiworks of time and the elements. Some have partially sunk into the soft moss-covered earth, whilst others have toppled over, giving up the ghost and calling it a day: not for decades has anybody stopped to stand and think of the inhabitant; nobody now to read the name which lies hidden, face down on the path.

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Twigs snap underfoot; rotting bark peels away from ivy-clad trunks and becomes compost, feeding new life beneath the ground. The eternal cycle continues: death into life; life into death. The mortal coil never ends.

This is no place for joy. Even the marble cherubs weep, their tears frozen for all time on their dark faces. Cold copies of loyal animal companions rest for all eternity alongside long dead masters and mistresses.

The atmosphere is eerie; the near silence powerful, punctuated only by birdsong and the movement of the wind through the branches. Occasionally, the sound of distant voices serves as reassurance that not all in this place lie dead in the ground. The treetops converge in places to form dark covers which block out all light. Here, in these dark places are found the oldest tombs, concealed behind bracken and fern, inaccessible, gone from memory. The air is damp and musty, the smell of the past left to its own devices.

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A new scent appears on the breeze as the path twists to the left: wild garlic. Pungent and lively, it announces the presence of new growth amongst decay. The tour guide, an intriguing fellow in an eccentric outfit straight out of a Merchant –Ivory production, calls a halt at various intervals to share with us a story of one of the famous internees. We hang on his every word, lapping it up, entering into the spirit. Tales from beyond the grave, of jealousy, murder, stories of hearts broken by grief, of spies and nobility, masters of industry, artists and poets; tales to breathe new life into bone and dust. Death is the great leveller, but some stories grab the imagination better than others.

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Unexpectedly, a magnificent gateway comes into view marking the entrance to an extraordinary neighbourhood of the dead. A gated community like no other, Highgate’s Egyptian Avenue is a winding terrace of mausoleums on a grand scale. Each abode has its own front door, the name of the occupiers chiselled into the grey stone. Typically Victorian and overstated, only the wealthy and the grand reside in this eternal Land of the north London Pharaohs.

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Across the metaphorical Styx, the links to the East continues into the Circle of Lebanon, a ring of ornate and beautiful tombs built around an ancient Cedar tree which has stood in the spot long before the Cemetery. Double doors of solid oak are closed to the world outside, the dead and their secrets locked away within. What fear of death and what clinging to life must have inspired such a resting place with four solid walls and a front door.

 

Our lilac-clad guide invites us to enter the catacombs. Dark and menacing the open entrance dares us to step over the threshold. Inside, the light is scare and the air is dingy and thick. There is no life in here. Against both walls are stone shelves laden with wooden coffins in different states of preservation. Battered by the years, row upon row are thick with dust and cobwebs. Nails, orange from oxidation, barely hold in place the skewed lids. Beyond this point is out of bounds. Ahead of us in the gloomy distance we can see the sinister sight of white bones escaping through gaps in the rotted containers. I feel like I am intruding here into a private place where the dead are entitled to be left alone.

Across the road we enter the East Cemetery. The contrast between the two is marked. Here is a place of celebrating life as much as mourning its passing away. The Victorians have been left behind in the East and the perspective has changed. Here the light shines through the sparser trees. We have no guide here and are free to roam and seek out the well-known names and the quirky markers of their resting places. There is laughter as more stories are shared of well-loved books whose authors lie beneath the soil and artists whose own epitaphs are no less dazzling than the works they created in life. Cameras click, footsteps fall. Grave stories seem less grave here.

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Hampstead: an oasis in the metropolis

I love England’s capital city and whenever I visit I experience a transient sense of envy of its residents. I say transient as I know I wouldn’t want to live there, but as soon as I arrive at Euston Station and am instantly swept up into the throng, I feel excited and can’t wait to start exploring. There is a pace of life, of movement, of everything which is unique to capital cities . This is most evident on transport networks. Tourists and visitors sometimes claim that London people are rude, unfriendly and unhelpful. This impression is often based on experiences of travelling on the London Underground where many passengers traverse the network with single-minded determination. It can be a stressful environment for those not used to the heat, noise and escalators on a giant scale. That being said, it’s still the best way to get around the city.

Away from the tourist trail, I have ventured over the last few years into other parts of the capital in order to savour the flavour of London life.

‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.’ professed Samuel Johnson, famous 18th century writer and critic and compiler in 1755 of the ‘Dictionary of the English Language’.

I concur with Doctor Johnson. I am still exploring and learning.

I am visiting Hampstead, north London, famous for its heath, very expensive properties and grand residents. Some ordinary people live there too. Hampstead Heath is a popular location with Londoners who want to experience a green space which provides a sense of escape from the city. By happy chance rather than by design, today’s adventure incorporates a literary theme. Perfect!

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The Spaniards Inn, iconic 16th century watering hole standing at the edge of Hampstead Heath, boasts amongst its past patrons the poet John Ruskin and novelist Charles Dickens, who referred to it in his novel, The Pickwick Papers. It has also been immortalised (aptly) in the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and was frequented by the poets Shelley and Byron. Such a rich narrative has grown up around Spaniards Inn that it’s impossible to separate local folklore from fact. Does that matter? Not a bit! Not to those who sit under its low beams and imbibe the legend along with the beer. Whether the pistols which once hung above the bar truly belonged to Dick Turpin (reputed to have been born there), or whether melancholy Ruskin truly penned ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ on a summer’s evening whilst sitting in the Inn’s garden, we’ll hang on every word of every tale. We love it!

This famous hostelry is a popular tourist destination in an attractive part of north London. It’s safest to book a table in this busy establishment which fills up quickly at lunch time. Spaniards Road must be one of the busiest in the country, partly due to its narrowing to single direction flow between the Inn and the toll booth. It’s easy to imagine how it would have looked in Turpin’s time and why the Inn made such an ideal spot to keep a look out for wealthy travellers passing through en route to their appointment with Turpin and his pistol.

Green canopies shade well-trodden paths through ancient communities of sycamore and oak. Underfoot, a carpet of leaves and mulch releases an earthy smell, damp and sweet. Paths cross over, some leading to spots for secret assignations, others leading to the open grassy space of Hampstead Heath. I could be in the countryside, not north London.

Hampstead high street is tree-lined and salubrious. Patisseries dress their windows with elaborate confections to catch the eye and tease the taste buds . The door opens and the aroma of sugar and cinnamon is released. Prices are not displayed; it’s not that sort of place. Estate agents’ windows showcase the best of Hampstead bricks and mortar. Prices are clearly displayed in seven figures. I can’t quite place the aroma this time, but I think this might be what money smells like………..

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Keats House, one-time abode of celebrated poet John Keats, has been turned into a museum which seems to be a hit with American visitors in particular. Tragically dying at the age of just 26, Keats was born in London in 1795 and became one of the nation’s best known Romantic poets. A brief look through the window of a downstairs reception room tells me that I probably won’t appreciate the full guided tour – and anyway, Keats probably penned his greatest works at the Spaniard’s Inn…….the plaque on the bench outside says so. Today, a pretty young artist sits cross-legged in a corner of the Keats garden beside the glossy laurel hedge, engrossed in her sketching and oblivious to the curious glances of tourists. Will this place one day feature in the anecdotes we read in reviews of her award-winning works? I’d like to think so.

I wonder if Keats ever consulted Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary and – if he did – would he have found the word ‘oasis’? Would he have appreciated the exotic sound of those three syllables? Well not every oasis belongs in a desert……….

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Hampstead Hilltop Garden is a modern oasis; a sanctuary from the noise and the madness of central London, just five miles away. The morning rain has evaporated and the sun at the zenith is reflected on the shimmering surface of the long rectangular pool, evocative of Moorish AlHambra . Ornamental reeds and floating lily pads add to the oriental illusion. In the shade of a beautiful willow tree, two men practise Tai Chi, gracefully and in slow motion, absorbed into the moment. A bold black crow struts purposefully across the grass on a mission known only to himself.

Beyond the garden can be seen the elevated pergola. Built in 1906 by Lord Lever Hulme who then owned the estate in which the gardens reside, the wooden pergola is now a shadow of its former grand self having fallen into a state of semi-disrepair. Despite the signs of neglect, this tranquil and elegant structure still enchants visitors who admire its timeless appearance: we could be in sultry Athens or Hampstead Hill Garden; it could be 2016 or 500BC. The clinging vines twist around the rotting trellis, new growth embraces the decay. Down the steps and back into the garden I pass a magnificent and very old sweet chestnut tree. The surface of its ancient bark is a landscape in itself with peaks and ravines hewn over time to form a unique topography. The stories this sentinel could tell…………….

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Tree hugging over, I make my way back through ‘Alhambra’, taking in the scents of the garden and enjoying the calm. As I leave I notice the crow appear from around a corner, back from his rendezvous, a companion crow by his side. They disappear beneath a green metal bench, shaded from the sun’s rays……….