Visiting The Victorian Valhalla

Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839 and today is probably the most famous and visited of all the Magnificent Seven. Today it is still in use and the burial site of some of the most famous of London’s population. The site is divided by Swains Lane and has an East and West side. The West side is the original site of the cemetery and has the oldest graves including the first one belonging to Elizabeth Jackson.

Laura D and I visited Highgate yesterday in the brilliant sunshine that seems so distant on this grey and snowy day today! The West cemetery is only available to be visited via organised tour which can be booked on their website here-

Our little tour group at the entrance

The tours take place very often and seem to be incredibly popular. I can understand why. The cemetery originally would have been open clear ground over gently rolling hills, but time and lack of maintenance over many years has meant trees and plants have taken over in the way that nature always does. Trees grow up between graves or sometimes through the middle of them, ivy covers nearly everything in places. It understandably creates quite an atmosphere because each section is only visible directly from the path.

Can barely see the graves for the trees

The tour is a little over an hour and visits some of the more unusual and larger of the grave sites in the cemetery. My Victorian history is a little rusty so the famous people of that age are not familiar but include a boxer, an animal collector, a family of bell makers and a coachman among many others. The wealthiest of the Victorian elite are buried at Highgate, I’m certain as a status symbol, but also because of the protection of a guarded gate. Grave robbers meant that the fear of your loved one being ripped from their final resting place was real and justified.

Our tour guide Brittany was great in that she had the cheery disposition and dark humour of someone you would want to show you around a cemetery. The tour itself appears to cover a lot of the cemetery, you see Egyptian Avenue in all its splendour and the catacombs, some of the larger monuments which are most impressive. I cannot recommend the tours more highly, they are informative and interesting even for those who aren’t just fascinated by Victorian death customs.

Brittany explaining the similarly in symbolism between the ‘cut off’ Victorian column in the background and the broken topped modern grave in the foreground

On the East side of the cemetery is another site with a much more open and ‘garden’ feel. Although both sites are still in use (George Michael and Alexander Litvinenko are both in the West side), it would appear newer graves are more common on the East side. Your tour ticket will also get you into this side, or I believe you can pay a small fee to enter.

Pretty awesome for a big Douglas Adams fan (that’s me!)

The East side has the resting places of many including Douglas Adams, Malcolm McClaren, Jeremy Beadle and, most famously, Karl Marx who’s grave is probably the main reason for people’s visits. His grave is impressive with a rather large bust of him adorning the top. There’s a great mix of traditional, older and newer graves on this site which is fascinating. Modern headstones branch out into many different areas, I’ve seen them in lots of different shapes which is a nice effect for your loved one. I think my favourite is the little painting palette that can be seen in the photo below.

The combination of modern and older gravestones

The third cemetery of our adventure complete, I can’t help but acknowledge how well Highgate has done. It’s claim of being ‘saved’ by the Friends of Highgate charity rings true when you visit and notice the ongoing work there to keep it a place that people want to visit. Tours are not the cheapest but when you recognise that the money is going directly back into the conservation of the area and everyone there volunteers you realise the importance of visiting to their cause. As you walk about you see graves marked with tape where it has been noticed that they are unstable or need attention. The larger mausoleums have been opened and cleaned by projects to save them too.

Who doesn’t love a cemetery cat?

At what seems to be the rear of the cemetery is a towering mausoleum bearing the name of Julius Beer. It’s big, looming and breathtaking. On the tour you are handed pictures of the inside which is absolutely stunning, and on their website is a virtual tour here- I can’t recommend clicking that link more, do it. It’s just a beautiful tomb for his daughter who died very young.

The work at Highgate is impressive, invaluable and, I believe, in stark contrast to the other members of the Magnificent Seven but a place that a number of them are aspiring towards. We will see when we visit the remaining four, but Laura and I definitely noticed the feel of Highgate was different to our wanders around Kensal Green or West Brompton.

Thank you for reading and have a great weekend.

MG x

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