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Highgate Cemetery

Interesting tour of Highgate Western cemetery which looked spectacular in the morning winter sunshine.

Accessible only as part of a guided tour, this graveyard is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries that were created in the 19th Century to alleviate overcrowding in existing parish burial grounds within London as well as to avoid the ever present body snatchers that used to hang around graveyards waiting to steal freshly buried corpses and sell them to interested parties who used them for dissection.

An additional issue, given that the population of London exploded by over 5 million during the 1800s, was that bodies were often hastily buried, simply wrapped in a shroud and often just a few feet below any surface, with the rather unfortunate result that they would often become exposed. Hard to imagine nowadays and must have caused quite a stench.

Whilst it is a woodland / nature reserve now, when it first opened in 1839 there were no trees which was typical of burial grounds. Instead it was very much set out as an ornamental garden in which Victorians would come to promenade and be so taken by its beauty, they would subsequently part with their cash and purchase a spot for their eventual burial. It is surrounded by high fences and in some ways resembled a fortress, which of course was its selling point.

There are some outstanding architectural features including the Egyptian Avenue, an imposing structure consisting of sixteen vaults on either side of a broad passageway, entered via a great arch, the Circle of Lebanon with vaults created in a circular arrangement and with a stunning Cedar of Lebanon tree at its centre and the Catacombs. The latter are quite spooky as they contain hundreds of coffins, some of which have been vandalised over the years which makes them easy to access.

There are so many hugely influential people buried here and the styles of grave and mausolea are breathtaking in their scope. These include Alexander Litvinenko, Radcliffe Hall, Michael Faraday, George Michael, Dr Robert Liston (famous for performing the only operation with a 300 percent mortality rate & could saw a leg off in 30 seconds flat) the list goes on (!)

The stories behind the graves are fascinating and this is most definitely a tour I would recommend going on, although not if you suffer from feretrophobia, of course. I’ll let you look that one up for yourself…

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