A cemetery is not the most obvious tourist destination but Highgate Cemetery is not your normal burial ground. That doesn’t mean you can rush through, making noise and posing for pictures. This is still a place for contemplation, and a memorial for the families who come to visit where their loved ones are buried. But is also a most intriguing place, well worth a trip if you’re in London, not least to see its most famous grave and memorial of all – to Karl Marx.
Highgate Cemetery is in North London, not far from Archway Tube station or a number of buses (visit the website for more on directions). It’s at the end of a residential street, which adds to the sense that you have just stumbled upon a gem. And it’s extremely atmospheric.
The Cemetery is divided into East and West both on different sides of the street, although the West (which is blessed with the most beautiful architecture including the chapel, many Gothic tombs and the remarkable Mausoleum of Julius Beer – based on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) can only be visited by guided tours (you have to book these on weekdays, but you can just turn up at weekends). It opened first, in 1839.
Most visitors visit the East Cemetery, built in 1854, which is where Marx is buried – along with so many others, including a number of former Lord Mayors of London and a certain Mary Ann Evans (otherwise known as the novelist George Eliot). It’s open daily, from 10am till 4pm on weekdays and 11am till 4pm on weekends and bank holidays and is really a special place to go. Admission costs £4 for adults with under-18s free. It may not sound like the kind of place where you would take children, but Robert enjoyed our visit. It’s really a special place, full of nature, with lots of little windy paths and overgrown vines and trees.
There are over 170,000 people buried in Highgate Cemetery, and more than 300 war graves. You can wander around at will, or you can get hold of one of the (free) maps and look for particular graves. We, like so many other visitors, were keen to see that of Karl Marx, but we were also intrigued to see the memorials to Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) which was very moving, with a pot of pens standing right outside it.
We also saw the graves of Sir Ralph Richardson, the impresario Malcolm McLaren (who has a typically flamboyant memorial), the poet Christina Rosetti, the former pop star Ian Dury, and TV presenter Jeremy Beadle. Of course there are lots of graves of people who aren’t famous, but which have beautiful verse or tributes etched onto their headstones.
The most exciting part of our trip was, of course, Marx’s grave, where the great radical glares out balefully into the distance. He was buried in 1883, and we weren’t sure he would appreciate the flowers laid at his grave, nor the fact that he is interred in such an expensive place (you can still buy plots here, but they run into thousands of pounds). Buried nearby are a number of left-wing politicians or writers, including the campaigning journalist Paul Foot and the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, but it’s Marx’s grave which really grabs your attention.
We spent a long time wandering around the cemetery, which is quiet and feels like being in the country. It was a beautiful Autumn day and we felt as if we were in a very special place.
Read more on places to visit in North London: