Who can argue that London is an absolutely fascinating city? We are utterly in love with the UK capital and we never miss an opportunity to plan a trip there. During our first trip to London a few years back, we made sure we ticked most, if not all, of our bucket-list things to do there. So, on our second time in London, we decided to add somewhat quirkier, out of the ordinary experiences to our itinerary. This is why we joined a Highgate Cemetery tour and we’re very happy we did. It turns out that this was the best way to uncover many of the secrets of our beloved city’s dark past.
A little bit of history: London in the 19th century
In order to understand the significance of Highgate Cemetery, we need to place it within the context of the period in which it was constructed. The 19th century was utterly important to the city of London and Britain as a whole. It was then that London was both the largest city and the most important port in the world. During that period, London saw rapid changes as the city’s population grew from 1 million in 1801 to 6.2 million a century later. This period is also known as the Victorian Era. That said, the latter coincides with the time of Queen Victoria’s reign, which was from 1837 to 1901, rather than span the entire length of the 19th century.
Throughout the 19th century, London was gradually becoming a shining modern city. Railways, the underground and iconic monuments such as the Big Ben and the Tower Bridge were constructed. Victorian London was the ultimate super power of the time and the most important trading capital. Yet, while the city grew into a wealthy financial and political centre, 19th century London was also a city of poverty. Alongside the rich and powerful who flourished, millions who had come to the city to work lived in poverty in overcrowded and unsanitary slums.
A look into Victorian London: 19th century architecture
The best way to understand life in Victorian London is by having a look at the architecture of the time. The splendour and power of 19th century London reflect on imposing constructions such as the King’s Cross Station and neighbouring St Pancras Station buildings or the beyond words beautiful Renaissance Hotel.
However, there is also a very dark side of London in the 19th century. A few metres away from those majestic buildings, reality wasn’t as glittering. Millions of souls lived under unbearable conditions in the slums surrounding the shining train stations. Epidemics were common so it’s no wonder that hospitals specializing in certain diseases were erected.
Frequent epidemics meant a rapid increase in the number of deaths, too. Therefore, although it was customary to bury the dead in small parish churchyards, the latter soon became way too overcrowded and posed a threat to public health. The need to construct modern cemeteries in the outskirts of central London was prominent. Inspired by the gorgeous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, seven large private cemeteries were established in London during the 19th century. Many years later, in 1981, the architectural historian Hugh Meller called these The Magnificent Seven Cemeteries. This has remained their unofficial name to this day.
Highgate Cemetery tour
Highgate Cemetery opened its doors in 1839. It was the third of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries to be built in London as a solution to the overcrowding in parish graveyards. It soon became a very popular place for burials. Highgate Cemetery comprises two sections, the East and the West. There are about 170,000 people buried in its grounds. Nowadays, Highgate Cemetery is still used for burials but these areas are not open to the public. Apart from its fascinating history, Highgate Cemetery is very much worth a visit for the notable people buried in its grounds, the superb architecture of its monuments and its exceptional natural scenery.
How to get to Highgate Cemetery
The best way to get to Highgate Cemetery is by public transport and, specifically, by tube. The closest station is Archway. From there, it is a pleasant, yet uphill, stroll to the Cemetery, the last part of which is through the marvellous Waterlow Park. For further information on how to get to Highgate Cemetery, click here.
A visit to the West Cemetery is possible by guided tour only. The latter lasts 70′ and costs £12/adult. Entrance to the East Cemetery is included in the price as well. Joining the guided tour on a weekday is by reservation only. On the contrary, booking is not possible at weekends when tours run every half hour on a first come first served basis.
The West Cemetery abounds in architectural wonders set among tall trees and wildflowers in the constant company of birds and small animals. Our knowledgeable and absolutely fun to be with guide, Peter, recounted stories of the famous (but also the less famous) people who are buried there while we marvelled at masterpieces such as the Egyptian Avenue, the Circle of Lebanon, the Terrace Catacombs and the Mausoleum of Julius Beer. As we strolled along the totally covered by thick foliage alleys and marvelled at wonderful sculptures, the unique ambience of an authentic Victorian cemetery got us under its spell.
Contrary to what happens at Highgate Cemetery West, it is not mandatory for visitors to join a guided tour in order to roam around the East Cemetery. As mentioned above, the £12 ticket grants access to both the East and the West Cemeteries. However, if you only feel like visiting the East section alone, a ticket costs £4/adult. This includes a map of the grounds as well.
By far the most famous resident of the East Cemetery is philosopher Karl Marx, the renowned Father of Socialism. His tomb has become a place of worship for socialists from all over the world, while many of them have gone so far as to be buried near him in Highgate Cemetery East. Other famous people buried there include the novelist George Eliot and the Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The list, of course, is endless.
Why visit Highgate Cemetery
But why on earth would we want to visit a graveyard during our holidays?, you may ask yourselves. Well, it’s an absolutely enchanting place would be our simple and honest response. Our stroll around the grounds of this old cemetery taught us so much about London in the 19th century, the city’s most significant time period. We learnt a lot from our guide himself but, also, this tour motivated us to read more about this splendid but also dark period in the city’s history. Furthermore, Highgate Cemetery is home to gorgeous architecture set in the most serene natural surroundings. All in all, a Highgate Cemetery tour is a fantastic way to escape the hustle and bustle of the big city, while, at the same time, delve into the core of the events, instances and people that made London the great city we know and love today.
Like our article? Pin this image!