Wednesday 5 July 2023

Highgate and Hampstead, a leafy land of legends. (part two)


John and I in Highgate.

24th February 2023. 

John and I returned to Highgate for a second time and got out at Highgate Tube and walked down the High Street which was becoming familiar territory to us both. We soon found Waterlow Park again and walked through its gardens arriving at the gates to Highgate Cemetery on Swains Lane that cuts the two parts of the cemetery into the older West Cemetery and the newer East Cemetery.    We negotiated the graves of the East Cemetery by ourselves. We bought tickets  to join the tour of the West Cemetery later.

Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839. It was one of the seven cemeteries that were built on the outskirts of London to accommodate the growing number of London's dead. Since Christopher Wren had built his city churches after the Great Fire of London, London churchyards had been the places for London’s dead to be buried. From the late Georgian period into the early Victorian period London’s population was rising fast and the city churchyards could no longer accommodate those who wished to be buried there. ”The Magnificent Seven,” as the new cemeteries were termed, were planned to deal with the exponential increase. Highgate Cemetery alone has an estimated 170, 000 burials. The day John and I were there there was a funeral and burial taking place.

 The cemetery is the last resting place of many famous people and it is easy to get star struck.  Immediately you walk into the cemetery you discover the graves of the literary greats, historians, scientists, actors, artists, publishers and more darkly, past members of the criminal world. 

Bruce Reynolds (1931-2013), the mastermind of The Great Train Robbery (1963)

We walked by ourselves around the newer East Cemetery. Just on our left as we entered we saw, positioned on a slight rise of ground, a small grey granite headstone hollowed out to make a niche for a life size bronze bust of a very serious looking man. It looked life like. It may have been taken from a death mask.  Across the top of the granite stone was written the name, Bruce Reynolds. He was the mastermind of The Great Train Robbery that took place in 1963. I remember it, as an eleven-year-old, in the newspapers and seeing live reports on the BBC on the  black and white television we had at home. The bust of Bruce Reynolds reminded me of the marble busts of Roman senators and emperors Marilyn, and I saw in the Archaeological Museum of Naples a few years ago. It had a sense of somebody serious and all powerful. Looking at the face of Bruce Reynold's bust was a little disconcerting. What is the mind of a criminal?

George Eliot (1819-1880)

We wandered on and found the granite obelisk that marks the grave of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). I have recently read Middlemarch by George Eliot that was first published in 1871.A tale, told from different points of view, concerning marriage, position in life, money and the lack of it and personal development. In many ways it is a novel of realism and portrays the strengths but more often the weaknesses of the many characters. A modernist novel. It can be pedantic at times in describing characters and preaching a moral viewpoint. George Eliot was a genius. She has been an influence on novelists ever since and is one of the great novelists in World Literature.  Other admirers had planted  flowers at the base of the obelisk marking her grave. She is squeazed in among other headstones.  I am sure these others are worth spending time with but, George Eliot took all our attention in this huddled part of the cemetery. I don’t think we looked at any of the other inscriptions on  headstones around her. John and I were definitely  star struck.

John next to Karl Marx ( 1818-1883).

Just beyond the grave of George Eliot, to our right on the opposite side of the path, was the unmissable giant bronze bust of Karl Marx set on a marble plinth. This has become the most famous of all Highgate’s tombs. Maybe it’s the most famous tomb in the world? I suppose the pyramids of Egypt are up there.
These are the words incised on the marble base. They ring  throughout twentieth century history., 

“ Workers of The World Unite.” Karl Marx.

” The Philosophers of the world have only interpreted the world in various ways.The point is to change it.’”

Somebody had  left a copy of ,The Communist Manifesto, and there were many bouquets of flowers covering the base of the plinth.

Marx and his family were  moved to this location in 1954. He, his wife and other members of his family were originally buried in a very ordinary grave with a small headstone about a hundred yards from the present tomb site. John and I tried to find the original grave. We had a map of the cemetery  given to us at the entrance. At first the map appeared simple and easy to fiollow. John and  I stood on a path that we thought was marked on the map.After a while of looking and looking and trying to find points we could recognise we decided that, unfortunately,  the map was not detailed enough. We located another path that was shown to try and get our bearings.We thought we had found the location of the original grave using the marked path and the site of the 1954 tomb we could see before us a little way off in the distance. We got confused and our location didn’t help at all. You have to realise that Highgate Cemetery is set within woodland. Many trees bar your vision and although it was still winter and there were no leaves on the trees the woodland is dense. So finally we didn’t find the original grave and it has left a feeling of failure. We must have been  close. One day, one or both of us will go back and we will find the original grave of Karl Marx. 

Eric Hobsbawn.

We walked on and I saw the grave clearly named of Eric Hobsabwn. He was an academic and a historian.A British historian of the rise of industrial capitalism, socialism and capitalism.  I remember reading one of his books when I did a history unit for my Open University degree in the 1980s.  I was thrilled to see his grave. John had never heard of him. 

I do not find cemeteries sad paces at all.I like to read the names and inscriptions on grave stones. Cemeteries are an affirmation of life and living as well as of death.  They remember people who lead lives that added something to the world we are in. 

Patrick Caulfield. "Step down this way."

Then we came across a grave that made me laugh. This particular grave stone  was that of Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005) a pop artist. It is a smooth piece of black granite.It is shaped as a series of neatly cut steps proceding from the top left to the bottom right. Each step has a single letter of the alphabet incised into it perforating the solid stone. Four steps that read from top left to bottom right, D E A D. There is something visceral, giving you a jolt, in that decisive word. It couldn’t be more precise and exact. A whole philosophy in one word.

So we walked around the East Cemetery. Here are a few more we came across. Robert Keating, another artist. Paul Foot, writer and revolutionary. Alan Sillitoe, author. Who of a certain age hasn’t been affected by Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner? Novels about post war working class life. They probably did as much as anything else to influence politics and life in this country in the1960s. Nearby we passed the grave of Corin Redgrave the actor and film star. We also saw the graves of Anna Mahler, sculptor. Bert Jansch, Scottish folk musician and member of Pentangle, Alan Howard, Shakespearean actor and Jeremy Beadle, the popular TV presenter. The resting place of Jim Stanford Horn has a grave stone in the form of a penguin novel  with two of the iconic penguins side by side at the bottom of the design. He was an avid reader. Those who love reading themselevs find this grave a touching tribute. We had only visited the east cemetery, so far. A lot more to come. Where was George Michael buried? He is definitely here but we didn't find him unfortunately.

Jim Stanford Horn (1976-2010)

The time for our guided walk of the older Western Cemetery was approaching. Like any good park or place of entertainment there are toilets near the entrance to the cemetery. We were enlivened for the next part of our cemetery exploration.

We crossed the road to the entrance to the older west part of the cemetery. We walked through the archway of an impressive Victorian gothic gatehouse into a courtyard where many horse drawn hearses over the centuries must have stood. The entrance provides space for a full turning circle for a horse drawn carriage. It is surrounded by a brick built arcade. I presume mourners could have stood under the arches of the arcade out of the rain and snow and wind if the weather was serving up those particular delights on the day. 

The entrance to the Western Cemetery.

A series of steeps steps lead from this entrance area into the environs of the cemetery. A ,”stairway to heaven.” (A little something for you Led Zeppelin fans.) Coffins are carried up these steps and along the paths  to the site of internment or burial.

The lady leading the tour discussed many of the symbolic elements of the graves. Many  are surmounted by stone funery urns with carved drapery slipping from the top of the urn symbolically releasing the soul of the occupant to heaven. Some have Greek pillars broken in half. They have not been vandalised, they symbolise lives cut short.There are many mausoleums of the great and good in  this part. Generals, admirals and the family crypts of  wealthy families. A massive hound lies at the foot of the grave of his master, Thomas Sayer , the greatest pugilist of the mid 19th century.He was a bare knuckle fighter. He only lost one bout in his career. In 1857 he famously defeated, Willam Perry,  the ,”Tipton Slasher.” He retired in 1860. George Wombwell was a menagerist in the late Georgian and early Victorian period. He travelled the country with a wild animal show. His tomb is surmounted by a life size  carving of his favourite lion, Nero. 

George Wombwell ( 1777-1850) Nero keeping him faithful company.

Whilst our guide stopped  by one of the largest mausoleums in the cemetery and informed us about the overall history of the cemetery and told us about this particular mausoleum partly buried in the ground and extensive enough to accommodate a whole family for generations, I nearly fell over a small gravestone positioned just behind us. I nudged John and whispered,”Look who we are standing next to.” A small granite stone,  severed at a sharp angle across the top like a broken slash was the grave of Alexander Litvinenko. I must admit I felt a slight chill go down my spine. The savagery of Vladimir Putin extends to Highgate Cemetery it seems.

Alexander Litvinenko (1962-2006)

Our guide lead us along a sloping pathway up through the wooded cemetery until we came to a large stone entrance flanked by pillars reminscent of an Egyptian temple. This was the entrance to the Egyptian Avenue.

The entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, leading to a rotunda sunken beneath the surface of the ground.

 A tunnel leading from this entrance passed between the bronze doors to crypts ranged on both sides. It opened out into a rotunda area that appeared sunken into the ground. The central drum was the location of more crypts. A circular pathway circled the central drum with further crypts lining the outer wall. One of these had the title ,"columbarium," above an 18th century door. Columbarium at first seems to refer to doves. Within a cemetery it is where funerary urns are displayed. We could not see inside. The bronze door was shut and a security gate was locked in front of it. The cemetery  has been vandalised on a number of occasions. After exploring this sunken world of the dead we ascended steps to ground level.

One part of the cemetery is not open to the public but our guide had the keys to the padlock which gave us entry to an extensive crypt. A long dark corridor,  lighted in places from small skylights, stretched in front of us. The sides of this corridor were lined, floor to ceiling with shelves of coffins . We could read the brass name plaques on many of them. It was here, on one of these shelves, that Charles and Catherine  Dicken’s  daughter Dora was placed  until her grave was ready within the cemetery. Dickens hated the crypt. It is a gloomy and macabre place.

A long tunnel of shelving for coffins. It was here Dicken's daughter Dora was laid before burial. Dickens hated this place

To finish this bit about Highgate Cemetery, after walking past the graves of Beryl Bainbridge and  Elizabeth Siddell as you do, we came across what some people term, the most beautiful grave in the world.  

The grave of Mary Nichols.

That is subjective of course but the grave to Mary Nichols, 

“The darling wife of Arthur Nichols and fondly loved mother of their only son, Harold,” 

must  be up there. Her  grave is  carved in stone as a bed of softly undulating  fabric depicting the softest feather bed you can imagine with a beautiful angel , wings tucked behind, lying on her side on 
top of it. You look and wonder.

There are so many more famous and infamous graves in Highgate. 

Highgate Cemtery was virtually abandoned in the in the mid 20th century. Some of the impressive mauseleums built and owned by wealthy familys had been  abandoned. Later members of familes had no wish to be buried in Highgate. Some family lines had died out. and so many sites were left to moulder and decay. Wild animals and especially birds got inside some of the mauseleums and quicked their dereliction. The cemetery is now owned by a charitable trust, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery which was set up in 1975. The trust acquired the freehold of both the east and west cemeterys by  1981.A book aout the cemtery , "Highgate Cemetery: Victoian Valhala," by John Gay was published in 1984. 

We completed our second visit to Highgate and Hampstead by walking from the cemetery, uphill, back to Hampstead High Street and found The Angel pub. We wanted to go in here particularly because of the blue plaque on the wall outside. 

Graham Chapman,
”A very naughty boy,” 
8th January1944 to 4th October 1989 
…Member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, 
 drank here often and copiously.

I mean, who could possibly walk past  without going in? I walked up to the bar.
"I hope you don't mind me asking? How much is a pint of beer?"
"£7.50, sir." 

Graham Chapman drank here. 

John and I, remembering the eye watering price of beer in The Flask from our previous visit, decided that just this once that price was acceptable. It was still a little eye watering  We had pints of ,’Neck Oil.” John had fish and chips and I had scampi and chips, to go with our beers. We found a window seat looking out on to the high street. It is quite small inside the pub. 

Blimey, Graham Chapman actually frequented this pub. WOW!!!!!! A real thrill for both John and me.

We then got on the tube at Highgate Tube station and made our way to Waterloo and then our respective trains home.

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