My first autumn living in London has been a glorious one. It’s been my favourite type of autumn – dry, sunny, gradually getting colder, with crunchy leaves absolutely everywhere, making the walk to the tube station so much more entertaining.
A few weeks ago, I decided to make the most of the beautiful weather and finally visit Highgate Cemetery. Old cemeteries hold a strange fascination for me anyway – I love wandering round, trying to imagine the stories behind the names, and the people who gave them such impressive memorials.
Highgate Cemetery, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, opened in the 1800s, after London’s population exploded and the churchyards could no longer cope with the number of burials.
There are two parts to the cemetery – the East and West. The east is £4 to enter and you can wander around on your own, or you can pay £12 to go into both, with the west being open only for guided tours. We went on a beautiful Sunday at lunchtime, and only had to wait 45 minutes for a tour, which we used to explore the East Cemetery.
The east side has plenty of interest – from Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) with pens at his memorial instead of flowers, to Malcolm McLaren, to the biggest memorial in there, Karl Marx (who is surrounded by ‘comrades’, which is fascinating in itself).
That said, it’s well worth spending the extra money to visit both sides.
I was blown away by the magic and beauty of the West Cemetery. It doesn’t have so many “celebrity” names, in the way the east side does, but what it lacks there it makes up for in drama. There’s the Circle of Lebanon – a circle of tombs upon which an enormous, ancient cedar tree sits, Egyptian Avenue, the pitch black catacombs, and endless pathways lined with innumerable gravestones, many of which are gradually being reclaimed by the grounds they’re set upon and the trees they rest among. The guides are also incredibly knowledgable, pointing out graves of interest that you’d otherwise walk straight past, including one that goes into some detail about the horrific death of a young woman whose ballgown caught fire at a party, and includes her last words, asking for death.
After a few hours at the cemetery, we made our way to a nearby pub, The Spaniard’s Inn, which has been there since the 16th Century. Given its popularity, it was no surprise that we couldn’t get a table inside near one of the open fires, but the weather was still warm enough that we could sit in the garden in our coats to enjoy an amazing roast dinner followed by a cheese board – we figured a walk over the Heath afterwards meant a mountain of cheese was justified.
As for Hampstead Heath, I couldn’t believe that the woodland was so close to central London – I felt like I was back at home in the countryside, stomping through piles of leaves, clambering over logs and trying to persuade the bizarre ducks to come close enough for photos. I love living in the city, but it was a wonderful escape for a while.
A drink in a Highgate pub rounded off the day – a glass of red wine in front of a fire before heading home to face the week ahead. A pretty perfect October Sunday.