The Best Of London’s Cemeteries. It’s often been my experience that if you really want to understand a place, go speak to the dead. Or at least hang out with them. It isn’t ghoulish to spend time in cemeteries; these places are often wildlife havens, repositories of wonderful human history and sculptural wonderlands. And so it is true of London.
I’ve been fortunate to live within a stone’s throw of London’s most beautiful cemetery, Highgate in the north of the city, but there are others less well-known. Here is my round-up of the finest and most intriguing.
Best known for being the last resting place of Karl Marx, the philosopher and revolutionary socialist can easily be found in the East cemetery (follow the crowds). Other famous occupants include the writer Daniel Defoe and artist and poet William Blake. But it is the West cemetery that holds the less familiar treasures. Only accessible on a guided tour, picturesque overgrown paths wind their way up a hill, suddenly opening out to reveal, for example, the brick-vaulted Terrace Catacombs or the stunning Egyptian Avenue, flanked by a massive pair of obelisks, reflecting the Victorians’ passion for all things Egyptian. Just turn up at the weekend and take pot luck with the next available guide: you may get a volunteer who knows the flora and fauna as if it was their own back garden, or you may get someone with specialist knowledge of symbolism in Victoria funerary sculpture. During the week, tours have to be booked ahead. They run every half hour from 11 am to 4 pm (3 pm in winter). Adults £12; Children 8 to 17, £6. No children under 8 admitted.
Given its position in the bosom of Chelsea, this oasis of the dead is a perfect antidote to all the high-end boutiques and ephemera of one of London’s elite quarters. Opened in 1840 to cater for a London population that had doubled in 40 years, it was then as now aimed at the wealthy middle-classes. Indicative are those who have buried here: artists and wealthy art collectors, models and footballers. Not only are there great tours such as the Amazing Women tour or the Victoria Cross tour or (my favourite): Young, Gifted and Dead tour but it is a backdrop for theatre productions and evening concerts as well as gardening sessions. Group or special interest tours can be arranged on request. Tours run every Sunday from May to August and on two Sundays each month during the rest of the year. Entry is £8 donation.
Abney Park Cemetery
One of the ‘Magnificent seven’ garden cemeteries that include Highgate and Brompton, Abney is set in woodland in genteel Stoke Newington in north London and there are hosted guided walks on the first Sunday of every month. One notable inmate is Frank Bostock who was the David Attenborough of his day, educating the public about African and Asian wildlife. A magnificent marble lion sits atop his tomb. Recently, it has added specialist tours such as the After-Dark Gothic tour revealing the macabre side of Victorian London, and the Winter Bird walk led by an ornithologist from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that will appeal to twitchers and non-twitchers alike. £5-10 There are also introductory classes in stone carving and woodwork plus activities for children during the school holidays.
One of the world’s oldest garden cemeteries, inspired by Pere-Lachaise in Paris. There are princes and paupers here, from George III’s children to Queen Victoria’s servants as well as some of the greats of English science and culture including the inventor and civil engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, maths and computer pioneer, Charles Babbage, and writers William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope. More recent arrivals include fashion designer Ossie Clarke. No need to pre-book the tours that take place on Sundays at 2pm beginning at the Anglican chapel in the centre of the cemetery. Tours take place in all weathers and are conducted by volunteers. Donation on entry £7.