Category Archives: Magnificent Seven

Highgate East : some famous graves

Mostly ones that are new since last time I visited, and the inevitable Karl Marx. Douglas Adams' grave has pencils stuck into the grass beside it too, which I thought rather nice.

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Highgate Cemetery : East side girls

Faces from the eastern half of Highgate Cemetery.

My boss, J., may be the nicest person in the world. "I'm knackered, find me some work to do that doesn't need my brain," I said this morning. "Oh, have the afternoon off and go play in the sun," he said. So I went to Highgate Cemetery.

I don't mind admitting, I went with a little trepidation. I've been told off in Highgate more often than I care to remember: for wearing a vest top deemed "unsuitable", for wanting to take photos on many occasions... frankly, it feels like I've been told off for wanting to visit at all. An innocent question about what the Friends might need help with, 7 or 8 years ago, met with a chilly "no thank you". But things have changed quite dramatically: I got smiled at when I arrived. By the formidable Mrs P. (I think) as well: good for her.

A change in management in the cemetery may have had something to do with this. Maybe they've just realised that they're primarily a tourist attraction and secondarily a cemetery (or will have to be, if they want to raise the £1,000 a day it takes to support the place). On a sunny Friday afternoon, the eastern half of the cemetery was full of tourists, with no one I could identify as a mourner at all. Perhaps the days of guide books voting Highgate Cemetery the UK's most unfriendly tourist destination are over.

Visiting: Highgate is still a pain in the backside to get to. On the tube, Archway is just about walkable and nearer than Highgate station. The C11 bus will drop you almost outside the gates, but will drag you on a tour of north London back streets first: pick it up at Archway station. Otherwise get the 210 or the 143 bus to Highgate Hill and walk through Waterlow Park. Driving is strongly not recommended; there is no parking at the cemetery.

Mobility-impaired visitors should be aware that Swain's Lane is a very steep hill, and that only the very main paths in the east part of the cemetery are tarmacked.

Check the Friends' website for current opening hours. At time of visiting, entrance to the eastern half of the cemetery was £3, including a photo permit for personal-use photography.

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Tower Hamlets Cemetery

Visiting: Mile End tube, turn right and walk down Southern Grove. There's always something going on at Tower Hamlets. Met a nice lady who asked me if I was lost; I said no, I was just wandering; she said "oh good". An old gentleman told me I should have been here 30 years earlier to see more good stuff. This is the kind of cemetery I like.

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Nunhead Cemetery

Nunhead's often cited as the "least known" of the Magnificent Seven, and while this might be true, darling Nunhead is one of my favourite cemeteries in London. Though it doesn't have the most spectacular monuments (you want Norwood, Brompton or Kensal Green for those), it does have an absolutely irresistable atmosphere. It's being managed as a nature reserve, which means that much of it is fairly overgrown, but the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery are doing an absolutely amazing job of keeping it good as a cemetery too. Don't expect too many spectacular monuments - the inhabitants of Nunhead are mostly like to prove their solid respectability with square columns and box tombs - but there is nowhere in London with an atmosphere quite like this.

Nunhead's fortunes over the years have been mixed. Founded in 1840 by the London Cemetery Company (who also founded Highgate), on the death of its first superintendent in 1865, it was discovered that he had defrauded the company of thousands of pounds. Lower mortality rates (fewer customers!) didn't help, and by 1960, the cemetery had been bought by a property company planning to build on part of the land. Perhaps the harshest blow was in 1974, when the Anglican chapel was all but destroyed by an arsonist. With vandalism and tales of "black magic rituals" rife, the London Borough of Southwark stepped in, and in 1975 bought the cemetery for £1.

When we first visited Nunhead, nine years ago, I was unsure that the cemetery would win. Today, I was delighted to see that it has. The Chapel has been stabilised, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund; though it lacks a roof, it's still suitable for summertime concerts and exhibitions, and its slightly ruinous appearance just adds to the Romantic air of Nunhead: it looks like the ruin of a mediaeval abbey. Though many areas of the cemetery are still overgrown, at least the main paths are clear, and the more spectacular monuments intact.

Some parts towards the back of the cemetery have been turned over to lawn and are accepting new burials. This might feel incongruous, but at least it's generating much-needed funds to keep the rest of the place intact.

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Kensal Green Cemetery

View full set on Flickr.

I don't think there's a league table for Most-Filmed-In Cemetery in Britain, but if there were, Kensal Green would surely top it: amongst a plethora of others, it appears in just about every episode of New Tricks, and was recently spotted in an episode of Morse, playing a cemetery in Oxford.

I'm sure it helps with filming that it's owned by a private company, not a London local authoriy.

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