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  • Writer's pictureAlex Lacey

Highlights of Highgate Cemetery West and East

Highgate Cemetery is one of the loveliest sights to see in North London, with winding alleyways among a huge number of gravestones, home to the graves a huge number of notable names in British history. It might not seem like an obvious day out, but this cemetery is a quiet, relaxed place with truly spectacular scenery.

Highgate Cemetery is one of London's Magnificent Seven cemeteries, created in the early 1800s when London's central cemeteries became dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary. Typhoid and cholera were rampant, and a solution was urgently needed. An act in 1832 paved the way for 7 huge, picturesque cemeteries to be created outside of the central area of the city. Highgate was the third to be created, being opened in 1839, and is undoubtedly the most spectacular of them.

The cemetery fell into disrepair in the 1970s, and was taken over shortly after by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, and is run for public benefit, not for profit. This allows it to be open to visitors. It is also Grade-I listed as a whole, with some of the most gorgeous parts - the catacombs, the Lebanon Circle and Egyptian Avenue - being some of the most famous and popular parts.

It is split into 2 parts, East and West. The West is the older section, and is still the most prestigious place to be buried. The eastern section was bought in 1850 after burials in central London were banned, and the demand for space here boomed.

Usually, the East part is available to be walked around at leisure (entrance fee applies) with the West only available via private tour. However, in 2021, the West section is also open to freely walking around, in order to keep people spread out due to Covid restrictions. Whether this will continue in the future is unclear, but for the time being, take advantage of the ability to go and take photos in some of the most beautiful areas of the cemetery. Pre-booking is essential.

As you go, here are some of the best bits of the cemetery to look out for;

Circle of Lebanon;

This absolutely stunning part of the cemetery is a must-see. Part of the West section, it is a gorgeous circle of tombs and resting places, which are arranged below a large chapel.

It's incredibly peaceful and photogenic, and home to the final resting place of Radclyffe Hall (more on her later)

Egyptian Avenue;

This stylised walkway, covered with flowing trees, leads up to the Circle of Lebanon. Take a look at the names over the doors as you go up - this is home to people who seemingly did very well for themselves!

Radclyffe Hall;

Radclyffe Hall was a very interesting woman. Openly gay in a time when gay women were believed not to even exist, she broke boundaries and defied society, publishing her noel The Well of Loneliness, a groundbreaking book in lesbian literature. The quote on her tomb is from her partner Una - "and if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."

For more about Radclyffe Hall, click here to take a look at this episode of my Global Tea Break series.

Curious animal sculptures;

This lovely little patient pooch snoozing on the stoop is the rather lovely tomb of Thomas Sayers.

He was a pretty famous bare knuckle boxer in the 1800s, and his funeral was the largest and most extravagant the cemetery has ever seen.

This snoozing canine is his loyal dog 'Lion', who was never apart from his master.

Talking of lions... is a rather lovely one! This gorgeous sculpture of a snoozing lion sits on top of the tomb of George Wombwell, who was a menagerist, owning a travelling show of around 15 wagons in total.

He bred the first lion in captivity in Britain, naming it William after William Wallace. This lion here is not William, however, but Nero, one of his show lions.

Let's not dwell too long on George Wombwell's tendency to pit Nero against fighting dogs though...

This poor, tired looking horse is the topper to another tomb in the west section, known simply as 'Horse Grave'.

It is not, however, a grave for horses, rather a tomb where members of the Atcheler family are buried.

Not a family we would know now, but they proudly claim to be relations of the official 'horse slaughterer' to Queen Victoria. No wonder this poor old nag looks so tired and depressed!

Oldest tomb in the cemetery;

A little bit of colour for this one, although it is almost illegible. This tomb was the very first person to be buried in Highgate Cemetery back in 1839.

The lady in question is one Elizabeth Jackson. She was outlived by her husband, but he died in the Soho cholera outbreak in 1854, the same outbreak that made the name of Dr John Snow.

It's a little tricky to find, as it is just on one of the main thoroughfares, but if you want the OG grave, she is worth seeking out.

Spectacular sculptures

Amongst all the famous graves and big names there lie a whole heap of beautiful sculptures. From creepy cherubs peeking at you from behind the grass fronds, to the daughter of the composer Gustav Mahler, there are some truly wonderful pieces.

One of my favourites is the kneeling woman below on the left, which is the tomb of Caroline Tucker, and she looks so serene kneeling there.

Another fantastic one is the one of Sisyphus, below

A bit of the Berlin Wall

This tomb here has a little chunk of the Berlin Wall that he brought back himself. A lovely little personal detail on a small tomb in the East section of the cemetery.

Famous burials

This could be an almost never-ending category. So many well known names are buried here, including George Michael, Alexander Litvinenko and Karl Marx, but here are a few of my favourites.

Michael Faraday

Father of electricity and electrochemistry, Faraday lies at the very edge of the cemetery under a tree which decided that horizontal looked more fun than vertical.

We mention Michael Faraday in this week's episode of the Ladies Who London podcast (episode 30) which you can listen to by clicking here or on all usual podcast providers.

Patrick Caulfield

A British painter and architect, Caulfield decided to go big or go home with his tombstone! Linked to the pop art movement, Caulfield decided to go against the grain of all the other tombs talking about people sleeping or resting, and decided to call a spade a spade!

When asked what his epitaph would be, Caulfield had answered: ‘Dead, of course.’ Taken as a joke at the time, it appears he was dead serious. (geddit?!) He had apparently been beavering away at his gravestone before he died, and was his final wry joke.

Ernestine Potowski Rose

A suffragist and abolitionist, Ernestine was given the title of the first Jewish feminist. She was a Polish-born American, she took on the mantle for equal rights in America, but later moved to England where she settled and continued to speak out on a variety of issues.

Douglas Adams

One of the most cult modern writers, Douglas Adams died unexpectedly young, and he is buried here with a simple but effective tombstone. The loveliest thing though? Visitors come and leave pens in a pot in front of his grave. Always make sure you bring your towel with you.

A chair for Grandad

One of the loveliest details I spotted in the park is a chair on its own, especially for Grandad. Space for just one.

Nature taking back over

One of my favourite things about Highgate Cemetery is the array of higgledy piggledy tombs, all tilting in on themselves and being reclaimed by nature.

My particular favourite example of this is the Groot-style tree giving some love to a tombstone. Here are a few of my favourite pics from the rest of the cemetery. Enjoy!

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