London Visit: Highgate Cemetery London. This tour is ideal for anyone who lives in the capital and those visitors who have already ticked off the typical tourist attractions. I think it’s probably one of the best tours in London because it’s eccentric, educational and you also get some exercise! I know that admiring gravestones with a bunch of strangers might seem a weird thing to do but it’s truly fascinating. I went recently with Homeboy and three friends and we all loved it. Besides, Highgate is a beautiful part of the city to explore and has a village feel so it’s just like being in the countryside. There’s also plenty more to do nearby so you can make a day of it. So join me on my Highgate Cemetery London tour to see what all the fuss is about.
Highgate Cemetery London West Side
There are two cemeteries, the east and the west. The most interesting side is the west which you can only see by taking a guided tour. Here you’ll discover amazing architectural features which include a Chapel, Colonnade, Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon, Terrace Catacombs and so much more.
The weather was a bit damp, slightly humid and a little misty on the day we visited which made it very atmospheric. With the overgrown foliage winding in between the gravestones and the canopy of ancient trees above, it was a mixture of eerie, enchanting and fascinating all rolled into one. We had a great group of people on our tour with some humorous moments and a bit of banter. The volunteer guide (Vivienne) was very engaging and really passionate about the subject of death and burials!
Opened in 1839 by the London Cemetery Company, it was one of seven privately owned cemeteries created to stop the spread of disease. Dead bodies were often placed haphazardly under floorboards and in very shallow graves which as you can imagine wasn’t very hygienic. Highgate was so popular because it sat high up on a hill and was thus deemed to be closer to god.
I came away with a good sense of what Victorian life was about and how they dealt and felt about death. The Victorians were ones to flaunt their wealth so would really go to town on burials with flamboyant funerals and a lavish sarcophagus or mausoleum. They’d have picnics in the graveyards where they would show off about how much money they had spent on the burial. Being a privately owned business, the cemetery was all about making money so they really went overboard on lavish structures in a marketing effort to attract more customers.
The Grand Julius Beer Mausoleum
However, after war broke out the attitude towards death changed and cremation also became legal. With many of the groundskeepers off to war and people not wanting to spend money on funerals, the owners eventually went bankrupt. The once magnificent cemetery soon became overgrown and vandalised, it became so derelict that the land was going to be sold off to housing developers. Luckily, it was saved in 1975 by a group who call themselves The Friends of Highgate Cemetery. The money from your tour tickets is used to keep these famous burial grounds open for you to enjoy.
The Circle of Lebanon Built Around Ancient Cedar Tree
I’ll tell you about one of the stories to give you a taster of the fascinating tales you’ll hear. Thomas Sayers, a Victorian bare-knuckle prizefighter, had the largest funeral there in 1865. He was so popular that his funeral was attended by more than 10,000 fans. He made a special request that his dog, called Lion, rode on an open carriage behind his coffin as the chief mourner. You’ll see his dog lying across his gravestone. I won’t tell you much more because you’ll need to go on the tour where you’ll get to hear all about the different types of memorials, the meanings of monument symbolism and about some of the people buried there.
Thomas Sayers Victorian Bare Knuckle Fighter
The West Cemetery is by guided tour only and you can then use your ticket to gain entry to the East-side. The tours last 70 minutes. From Monday to Friday there is one tour at 1.45 pm which you need to book and tickets go on sale a month in advance. During March to October, you can join a weekend tour from 11 am until 4 pm which run approximately every half hour. During November to February, the times are from 11 am until 3 pm. You can’t book tickets for the weekend tours. Prices are £12 for adults and £6 for children. Anyone under eight years and babies is not permitted and neither are dogs unless you have a disability. You can’t take tea or coffee in paper cups so take a bottle of water instead. Some of the paths are overgrown and steep with nowhere to sit down. You can take pictures except for in the catacombs. The souvenir brochure is £5 which is actually really good so do buy one.
Highgate Cemetery London East Side
The east side is where you’ll find the Karl Marx monument and other famous people. This cemetery opened in 1860 and is a bit more orderly so you can roam around by yourself once you’ve paid the entrance fee. This is well worth a visit in its own right because of the beautiful setting. You are given a map so you can easily locate the graves of Douglas Adams who wrote Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the novelist George Elliot and the godfather of punk Malcolm McLaren.
Karl Marx Monument
From March to October, the cemetery opens from 10 am until 5 pm with the last admission at 4.30 pm from Monday to Friday. At weekends and bank holidays, it is 11 am to 5 pm with the last admission at 4.30 pm. From November to February The East Cemetery opens Monday to Friday 10 am until 4 pm with the last admission at 3.30 pm. Weekends and bank holidays it is 11 am until 4 pm with the last admission at 3.30 pm. Entry price is £4 for adults and free for under eighteens. They do have a Saturday guided tour at 2 pm which is £8 for adults and £4 for kids.
Highgate Cemetery London Information
To find out more about the cemetery and the tour you can visit the Highgate Cemetery Website. The address is Swain’s Lane, London N6 6PJ. The best way to get there is by travelling to Archway tube station, take the Highgate Hill exit and walk up the hill until you reach Waterlow Park and it’s about a five to ten minutes’ walk through the park. You can take a bus up the hill (210, 271 and 143). You’ll notice a café on your right just as you enter Waterlow Park which is quite good and they have toilets. There are also toilets which are very clean in the East Cemetery if you need them and these are located close to the entrance gate.
You’ll find a few more eateries at the bottom of Swain’s Lane so walk down the hill when you come out of the cemeteries. Other things to do while you are in the vicinity include:
- Saunter around Waterlow Park
- Take a walk on Hampstead Heath
- Visit Kenwood House
Author: Homegirl London. Photographs: Homegirl London. Thanks: Homeboy, Richie, Ambi and Ed for a great day out.