Exploring Highgate Cemetery

posted by on 10/08/2013

Following on from our impromptu exploring Heygate adventure last month, we decided to head down to Highgate to wander around North London’s iconic cemetery on a Sunday. Now seeing as the series was all going to be about exploring a derelict spaces in London, we thought it’d be good to visit parts of the city that most would avoid. Cemeteries have forever scared me ever since watching Michael Jackson’s Thriller video as a child, I’d get shook just by walking past one.

What started out as a photography trip between Folaju and I (Melody’s gone back to Singapore for the time being…) had grown, a few London-based photographers/Y&Y readers joined us for the trip as well as new family member Adam. The others who joined us on this camera wielding adventure into areas never before ventured included Shaamil, Peter and Kabz.

The journey started off at Archway station where we all met for 1:30pm sharp and  everyone was on time – you see that? Haha no digs at anyone. This makes a pleasant change, photographers are never late to capture a moment so everyone’s timely arrival wasn’t surprising. The cemetery is a short walk from the station, it’s about equal distance from both Archway and Highgate stations but easier if you chose the latter as you’ll be walking down hill as opposed to up. It’s about a 15 minute walk so not too long at all.

In the beginning of the 19th century London was facing a major crisis because all graveyards and burial grounds were placed in urban locations in between shops, houses, taverns – wherever there was space on a street corner. Disposable graves with pretenders dressed as clergy doing illegal burials of bodies wrapped in second-rate material and buried amongst 100/1000s of other human remains in graves. This led to an increase in diseases and stank, yes stank from the overcrowded, uncared for and neglected graves. They quickly became dangerous with decaying matter getting into the water supply and bodies apparently being flushed directly into the newly-built sewer system. Corpse flavoured water. Yuck.

Side note: I just went for a quick walk out of my workplace to the local Waitrose and noticed a random grave sitting in the corner of a small park. Clerkenwell is a whole different story when it comes to burials, black death sites full of bodies piled on top of each other.

The rise of population from 1 million to 2.3 million was the cause of this and to prevent this from getting out of hand, Parliament passed a statute to create seven new private cemeteries in the countryside regions around the city. Not so much countryside any more but you know what I mean, outside Zone 1 & 2. The Magnificent Seven consists of Kensal Green 1833, West Norwood 1836, Highgate 1839, Abney Park 1840, Brompton 1840, Nunhead 1840 and Tower Hamlets 1841. God this post is starting out a little grim and dark, ey?

The land Highgate Cemetery is laid on, previously stood as the manor and home of Sir William Ashurt, Lord Mayor of London during the late 17th Century and Director of the Bank of England. You know he was balling to be able to call all that land home. After his death, the estate had fallen into despair which led to the Church purchasing the land and demolishing his manor to build St. Michael’s Church.

After the parliament statute, the creation of the London Cemetery Company secured the overgrown orchard and park for development in 1836. After 3 years, Highgate opened as a cemetery and natural reserve due to its setting in a semi-rural surrounding and beautifully landscaped grounds. It soon become a tourist attraction for many and earned design distinction for its iconic Gothic architecture and Egyptian style catacombs.

We started our journey off in the East cemetery as we waited a hour for the tour to the West which you can’t access without a guided tour since a lot of the mausoleums are there.

The cemetery itself is stunning – you know how I spoke about my fears of one? That all vanished the second I got there and it was blindingly sunny on the day so no reason to be afraid aside from FJ’s random ghost noises to frighten everyone. We made sure we went off on non-touristy paths inside the cemetery to get more eerie and spooky shoots. Peter summed the whole experience pretty nicely in his Instagram caption:

Highgate Cemetery is another world. The importance of a resting place is incredibly evident here, with tombs and headstones going into tens of thousands of pounds. 

It certainly is. A cemetery is the place with most potential in the world. Imagine all the people who passed away without being able to do what they wanted, all the lost potential right there.

Out of the seven famous cemeteries, Highgate attracted the varied clientele and became the capital’s most fashionable one. Never thought I’d use the term fashionable and cemetery in the same sentence but hey it fits this place, a place so beautiful and dark. In 1854, the company decided Highgate was so profitable that they decided to extend the cemetery by a further twenty acres into the rest of Swain’s Lane site. This area is where we were exploring, now called the East Cemetery.

Without a doubt the most famous grave in this side is that of philospher Karl Marx which you’ll see later in the post which we captured after we ventured through West. It’s easily the most popular tourist attraction, people literally walked into see that grave and walked back out. Not sure what life changing juju power it has but it must have some kind of evil communism energy haha.

Naturally there had to be a hipster tombstone. Modern, contemporary and minimal with a straight to the point message ‘DEAD‘ haha. I’ve already decided what I’ll have one mine, it’ll have an embedded iPad X (insert number of the year) with a live Facebook/Foursquare check-in for those who come and visit. When they do so successfully, they’ll get a personal message from a hologram version of me. Think Star Wars. Loser much? I have a vivid imagination, it’d make Buzz Feed and PSFK. May even win a Design Week award.

On to the west side…

The only way to see the west side of the cemetery is with a tour guide which is a shame but totally understandable as a lot of graves have been broken into in the past, there was a period of time in the 19th century where skulls were going for £50-100 quid on the market and people were desperate. So we gave up our independent hipster egos to join the tour and venture into the west side. Much to my displeasure but we weren’t going to go breaking into a cemetery….are you mad?!

Even Jesus showed up to join adventure.

I’m so glad I made the extra effort to run ahead of the guide to get this photograph before he came and cut off in a few seconds. This great archway leads into the heart of the grounds with the Egyptian Avenue – easily my favourite part of the cemetery. So picturesque and the circular architecture is fascinating, around the avenue are vaults fitted with shelves for twelve coffins which were purchased by individual (ballin’) families for their sole use. Think private member’s clubs for the dead.

St. Michael’s

The Terrace Catacombs once were the terrace of the gardens of Ashurt House where folks came to chill and have afternoon tea whilst taking in views of London which is now mostly obscured by trees. We’re not technically allowed to take photographs inside the catacombs, not entirely sure why but I think it’s down to the fact the place has been broken into several times over the years. Most recently someone had broken in and taken the bodies out of the coffins!? The brick-vaulted gallery more than 80 yards long is lit by the oculi set in the terrace, on the side there are separate recesses which are large enough to take a single coffin. I definitely don’t want to be buried like that, plopped up onto a shelf like in a super market. No respect.

Adam finally arrives after getting stung by a wasp and taking several rail replacement buses. We went to say hi to Uncle Karl before heading to our next location.

So we headed to Highgate station to find a way into the old railway station which once ran from Highgate to Alexandra Palace/Crouch End. It ended up being shut down in 1954 with the tunnels being closed of and the rest of the site turning into a nature reserve. From where we were, near the new station everything seemed to be still intact. Quite eerie if you ask me, it’s like life at the station stood still 50 years ago and hasn’t moved since. It would have been awesome to go down and capture it all, unfortunately we couldn’t find a way in that didn’t require us to walk down a 20 feet hill filled with stingy nettle bushes and trees. It wasn’t worth taking the risk for, sigh. We’ll be back though, hopefully in the morning when there are less people around to look at us suspiciously. Failed once, comeback and try again. Right?

Until next time folks, we’ve already planned our next excursion. It’ll be a building – no bushes or thorns to stop us. Let’s do this.

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