Tour of Highgate Cemetery
4th November 2020
Visit to Highgate West Cemetery on Wednesday 4th November 2020
It was fortuitous that the Master chose the day before the second lockdown for her first planned event, a tour of Highgate West Cemetery.
The day dawned chilly but bright and sunny and after a refreshing cup of coffee we were joined by Peter, our cemetery guide.
Peter explained that by the 1820’s London’s church graveyards had become overcrowded, indecent and unsanitary. The problem was exacerbated by regular outbreaks of cholera and typhoid. A solution was needed to be found to address the problem. Taking their lead from the Pere La Chaise cemetery in Paris various private companies set about developing seven sites ringing London’s periphery where they created beautifully landscaped garden cemeteries. Highgate was opened in 1839.
These cemeteries were intended to attract visitors and not be just places for the bereaved to mourn. It was thought morals would be improved by reading epitaphs, admiring the art of the memorials and escaping the noise and pollution of the metropolis. During the 20th century as space ran out and the cost of maintenance and security increased Highgate became unprofitable to run. It became neglected and overgrown and vandals had their day.
In 1975 the cemetery was rescued by the formation of a charity and is now run for public benefit, not for profit. Conservation and restoration continues but is moderated in order to retain the romantic atmosphere of benign decay which visitors find so attractive. Our small group slowly made their way up winding paths lined with ivy clad monuments in the Neo Classical, Grecian, Egyptian and Gothic styles to view the showcase of the West Cemetery, the Egyptian Avenue. The entrance is through an iron gateway under a massive Pharaonic arch flanked by obelisks and supported by lotus bud capitals.
Moving onward and upward we arrived at the Terrace Catacombs, a gallery more than eighty yards long and lined with 825 separate recesses from ground to ceiling down both sides of its length each recess large enough to accommodate a single coffin, end on.
Throughout the tour the Peter was able to regale us with many interesting facts and details about some of the ‘residents’ who today number 170000 sharing 54000 graves.
Regretfully Covid restrictions put paid to our visiting a restaurant for lunch but all agreed it had been a most informative and interesting visit.
Covid also put paid to an actual AGM this year so Immediate Past Master Ian Kelly invested the Master with her badge of office in the cemetery! It was certainly a unique day!
Past Master Ian Kelly