One of the less depressing things about London is the happy hunt for underappreciated tourist attractions. You know, things like Henry Moore’s sculpture at Millbank on the Thames. Never heard of Millbank? Notorious Renaissance den of iniquity within the sanctuary zone of Westminster Abbey, 19th Century point of departure for the convict ships to Australia, origin of the term “Down Under”, 1960s icon of Brutalist architecture? There you go – underappreciated.
This weekend’s forgotten gem was Highgate Cemetery. In fact, before I got to Highgate, I had to turn again, turn again, turn again like Whittington, who stopped at the Archway Tube station to reconsider and go back to be thrice Lord Mayor of London. I took a picture of his cat. Bronze cats are popular in London – in a later blog, I will introduce you to Dr Johnson’s.
You may know Highgate as the resting place of Karl Marx – I didn’t bother to visit the great man. I did, however, pay homage at the modest gravestone of Douglas Adams – Writer.
Highgate represents the pinnacle of the great 19th century funerary obsession. It ranks with Pere LaChaise in Paris, and Recoleta in Buenos Aires. Unlike those two immaculate gems, Highgate has been allowed to subside into a delicately sustained neglect; something like that elderly relative who teeters between charming and vicious on the third brandy and dry.
Speaking of which, the West Cemetery is accessible by guided tour only. It is also guarded by a fierce dragon in Argyll plaid.
I was at the front of the queue, being compulsively early as usual. Immediately I was in trouble. I had my Hasselblad tucked discreetly under one arm. Not discreet enough for dragon-lady. My camera was too big, and thus disrespectful to the grieving and departed. She bore an alarming resemblance to one of my more intimidating primary school teachers, so the Hasselblad went back in its bag, and the baby Pentax came out. I must have projected the right air of cringing subservience, because she appointed me Head Girl in charge of collecting the tour group and walking them across the courtyard to our designated waiting spot.
Fortunately dragon-lady was replaced by cheerful and blonde, who walked us around the weird and wonderful relic of Highgate.
After the Highgate tour I still had energy to burn, so walked back across Hampstead Heath, then through Chalk Farm and Primrose Hill, across Primrose Hill and then to St John’s Wood. All up, about 8km, so not too bad for a Sunday.