(a day trip to) Highgate Cemetery

I have a conundrum for you this evening!

Thursday I travelled to London by coach with the aim of visiting Highgate’s Victorian Cemetery and yes it lived up to my expectations. I had promised a photo blog much the same as I’ve written before after one of my daytrips, however, alas I have only 3 photos for you pictured below of the imposing Gothic gated entrance, the centrepiece 200+ year Circle of Lebanon Cedar tree and a view taken from the pathway.

So why so few photos? Well our Tour guide said camera photography was permitted, yet no one did perhaps for no other reason than taking pictures of the dead seemed disrespectful? A Cemetery after all is a peaceful quiet place of eternal rest anyways not to worry.

Which all means I’ll have to exercise my brain (with a twist) and write about the day instead.

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My photo of the imposing entrance. Imagine 150 years ago horse drawn carriages, their manes adorned with plumes of black feathers entering by these gates.
Highgate 002
Now I am really pleased with this photo of the ‘Circle of Lebanon’ damaged by sunstrike, AND yes I was looking toward a low spring time sun but I like the photo. Alas this dying Cedar tree’s days are numbered but I’ve given you a hint of sunken vaults in the foreground.
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My photograph surreptitiously taken from the winding snaking gravel pathways

I guess each person within our tour party would have loved to spend the afternoon roaming the cemetery’s many vaults, mausolea, statues, catacombs and other treasures, but alas our lovely ‘super efficient’ tour guide had a schedule to be kept to, wandering stragglers at the rear were given a sharp,

“Do keep up now!”

The lady sounding rather like a brusque, rather annoyed headmistress with her cut glass posh English accent…………. but there you are who can complain when her 70minutes tour blessed with many fascinating facts, dates and true tales was so interesting.

However!

Please remember if I’ve wetted your appetite for visiting and seeing for yourselves this wonder of Victorian London, please remember you CANNOT just turn up on the off chance because it’s not open to the public to wander in from the street! If you do you’ll be faced with my photo above with it’s large wrought iron gates locked tightly shut, but that does kinda add to the excitement, knowing that only a lucky few can visit each day. No you have to do some on-line preparation work before hand, and just imagine if this was open to the general public! Thousands of people walking traipsing wherever they wish, leaving coke cans and vandalising both the wildlife and structures with all peace and tranquillity disappeared.

Not to worry though, visit Highgate cemetery’s website and you can book a ticket for yourself and your partner (no under age8 children allowed), then pay £12.

Now through the wonders of Google here are several images below I’ve stolen borrowed from the net, look closely and you’ll see a photo of the centre piece cedar tree absent of sun-strike!

I quite took to our tour guide wearing her bright red shirt on a warm spring day, her tightly fitting slim blue jeans, a tall and slender lady no older than age60 and readers to this blog will know the older woman turns me on big time! Especially when she’s assertive bossy and domineering, but joking apart and being bluntly honest she was an extremely sexy specimen of aged womanhood, oh and with the hint of two gentle mounds of breasts beneath her scarlet shirt………….. that topped my day!

The lady’s most entertaining true tale, of which there were many, features the renowned Victorian anatomist and surgeon Henry Gray, similar to many of the interns beneath Highgate’s undergrowth he was a man famous of his day, and if you wish to know more then Wikipedia for other notable Victorians laying six feet under!

(Charles Dickens wife and children are buried here.)

Henry Gray’s headstone had only recently been discovered by a volunteer clearing from amongst the thousands of headstones, and ivy strewn undergrowth. Apparently as the story goes, during surgical operations he would try to cut as quickly as possible with his knife and saw because the patient was not under anaesthetic, though Gray did later discover ether would make the knifing procedure less painful. Again as the story goes, our lady guide told us Gray also holds the impressive record of most deaths in one single operation, because in his haste to amputate a man’s leg quickly, he cut three fingers off his assistant (who later died of infection), a member of the public watching (for as we were reminded this is where the term ‘operating theatre’ originates) dropped down dead, and of course the patient later died also succumbing to his injuries.

Three deaths during one operation, impressive no?

Of course the connection between infection and cleanliness of instruments hadn’t been discovered yet, much the same as Joseph Bazzalgette hadn’t yet discovered cholera was a water borne infection, the Victorians believing cholera was an airborne disease with horrific consequences, incidentally Bazzalgette invented London’s sewage system and yet another genius Victorian who shaped the modern world!

Incidentally Victorian high society was captivated by this new profession called surgery, but (apparently according to our gorgeous tour guide) surgeons were the superstar ‘must have dinner guests’ at parties of the time, but little did they know surgeons also paid unscrupulous London men to rob graves of their dear departed all in the name of practice and science, that’s until an act of Parliament allowed the dead from workhouses to be purchased and dissected. 

I guess the Anglican Church didn’t believe souls of the poor required saving?

The real irony of course is, Highgate was built a fortress with armed guards in order to keep grave robbers OUT which kinda amused me, and I wasn’t aware the vaults were fitted with bells because apparently Victorian Londoners biggest fear was waking alive after being presumed dead……….. now I can see the logic in that!

Hopefully I’ve given you a sense of how the Lady interwove different tales into one stream of consciousness, very clever and as she said sporting a rather wry grin, “Of course we did what every cash strapped charity would do! We contacted those wealthy Fellows Of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS), to see if they would be interested in helping pay for Henry’s grave to be cleaned”, and again as we were reminded ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ is still purchased today by bright eyed medical students embarking on their career in medicine.

There is so much more I could write about such as foxes visiting after dusk, the catacombs are home to a rare breed of spider having found it’s home inside the damp burial vaults, bats hang from the ceilings above lead boxed coffins, still visible the wooden casket having  decomposed and rotted away, tales of how Londoners could walk from Canning Town through fields and meadows to marvel at this the poshest Cemetery in England, and for a Brit that’s an astounding vision because the journey today is walked through street lined buildings! And George Michael is buried behind it’s strong high walls I guess in an effort to keep it hidden from view or from becoming a public shrine, jeez just imagine if his final resting place was open to musician following pilgrims and their posters!! 

Yes a truly amazing Victorian splendour with heaps of history and atmosphere and THANKFULLY no stories of ghosts!

Finally why not book on-line and go visit for yourselves, however note you cannot spend an afternoon doing as you wish but does that matter anyway? Oh and if you’re lucky you to may have an attractive sexy Grandma for a tour guide. 

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The ‘Egyptian Avenue’ taken from a print of the day, I think we were colonising Egypt at the time!!

 

©A. Shepherdson 2019

 

 

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8 thoughts on “(a day trip to) Highgate Cemetery

  1. It may sound macabre, but what treasures of history, architecture, and culture we have in these cemeteries. Highgate Cemetery is fascinating. I also remember a few years ago reading Audrey Niffenegar’s Her Fearful Symmetry, which also brought the gothic atmosphere to life (as it were).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I may be wrong but I have the feeling you’d enjoy both the Cemetery’s peaceful treasures and the guided tour with its amusing accompanying Tales………… and I do love story of Henry Gray killing 3 people during one operation, though I guess the patients didn’t!!

      Like

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