Eight years ago I was in London for an interview with the Government of Canada, and I was really excited that I would finally be able to go to Highgate Cemetery, which had been on my wish list for some time. Unfortunately, for reasons I won’t get into here, I was cash poor and could not afford to travel on the Tube, so I was basically stuck walking around London for my entire stay here, and missed out on all the cemeteries. So I was very happy to have finally made it out to Highgate, considered by many to be the best of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries. As I’ve been to quite a number of cemeteries now, and have read a lot about these cemeteries, my expectations were held in check, although I was obviously still excited enough to be there an hour before the gates opened. So was another photographer, but she and I were allowed to buy our tickets early which was really nice of the man who worked there.
Unfortunately Highgate West can only be visited by guided tour, and they take up to 20 people per tour. You basically follow the main path in loop with the guide talking about famous tombs and statues along the way. It’s pretty much a “greatest hits” tour, which includes the very first internment in the cemetery, the lion that graces the famous menagerist George Wombwell, the dog (named Lion) that mourns over the loss of his master, Tom Sayers, who was the most famous sportsman (bareknuckle fighter) of his time – over 10,000 people attended his funeral. The massive Beer mausoleum is stunning, as is the angel inside carrying his daughter to heaven (unfortunately there is no way to photograph the statue as we had to view it through the windows of the door). Of course, the Circle of Lebanon and Egyptian Avenue are quite well-known places in the cemetery, and we spent some time there. This included looking at the catacombs (which again, cannot be photographed), which were unfortunately vandalized as various points in the cemetery’s history (why people do this, I’ll never know). Overall, I was very happy with the tour, although I already knew quite a lot about it having read so much about this cemetery beforehand.
I really do wish however, that it was possible to explore the rest of the cemetery, as it is quite atmospheric. I do understand why they don’t allow it, as many of the graves are literally on top of each other, and it would be possible for people to get hurt or monuments damaged if people were in there exploring. However, it would be nice if there were alternative tours available – such as a “repeaters” tour that could explore other areas of the cemetery, or graves on request. Or a “photographers” tour, where we could go in with a guide, but not be guided with information, just supervised in certain areas – allowed to take the time we need to photograph certain areas (possibly with tripod, if on the main paths). It’s clear that there are two types of visitors on these tours – people who have heard about Highgate and are happy to the tour, and people who are there to photograph it (they’re always the ones trailing behind or slipping off to the side to photograph something interesting). Clearly the tours are meant for the former, not the latter. Even though I don’t like paying to get into a cemetery (although I appreciate that it costs a lot to keep it going – 1000 pounds a day!) I would be willing to pay more for a tour (or whatever) that would allow me to photograph it at leisure (at least two hours) and with a tripod (for infrared work).
Quality of Monuments: Great. Mausoleums, crypts, catacombs, and statues – this cemetery has it all. The overall style is Gothic Revival and you’ll see that in various forms around the cemetery. It’s hard to believe that this was more like an open park when it first opened, as it is very much a woodland now — all the trees and other vegetation really add to the atmosphere around the monuments.
Cemetery Grounds: Extensive, but visitors are unable to explore due to the fact that all visits must be by guided tour only. It’s a bit hilly, with gentle slopes and stairs in some cases. The paths are quite large (to allow for hearses). It’s extremely atmospheric and beautiful, and would be amazing to explore (or just relax in) if that was a possibility. If I lived in London I would definitely be a volunteer here (in any capacity) to be able to spend as much time here as possible!
Visitors: Maximum 20 per tour. We did run into the tour after ours as we made our way back to the main chapel/entrance, but that was it. Although Highgate is still open for burials (and open to all – unlike Parisian cemeteries, you don’t have to have lived in London or the UK to be buried here) I didn’t see any mourners.
Photographer Notes: All the trees make the light levels a bit low, but of course that will also be determined by how much light the sun is casting (if at all – it is England after all). Zooms would be useful although I did not have one. Tripods are not allowed at all in the West cemetery.
Cemetery: Highgate West (officially the Cemetery of St James at Highgate)
Location: Highgate. Take the tube to Archway station and walk up the hill until you reach Waterlow Park on your left. Cross the park to the other side and you’ll see the grand entrance to Highgate West in front of you (Highgate East will be just to your left).
Hours: By guided tour only. On weekends they run every half hour from 11:00 to 15:00, and once a day Monday-Friday from 13:45 (you must book ahead – bookings are available a month before the date requested).