Sunday, 25 October 2009

Highgate Cemetery, High Tea and books

Highgate Cemetery taken by Wendy Keel

This week has been incredibly busy and tiring (hence no blog post) and I have just sat down to catch up on all the things that I should have done earlier in the week.

Yesterday I went to Highgate Cemetery with Rachel from Book Snob. We finally made it to the Cemetery after having experienced a bit of an epic journey. Firstly, Archway tube was closed for engineering works so I had to get off at Highgate tube (apparently nowhere near the cemetery) and then catch the number 134 bus down Archway Road. We met at Archway tube and set off for the Cemetery - we merrily hopped on to the bus only to alight and realise that we were in the wrong place. Essentially, we had gone back the way we came so we were back up Archway Road when we wanted Highgate Hill. We then got the bus back down the road. I can now hold my head up and say that Rachel and I are the only people in the world to have caught the number 134 bus three times within the space of 30 minutes. We are now experts on the Archway Road.

After all our bus riding we decided that we were too late for the 11am tour so we would have to go in to some charity bookshops to kill some time until the 12pm tour. Rachel found a stash of bargains and, despite my book-buying ban, I bought two books for 40p. I thought that it was no longer possible in 21st century Britain to buy anything for under £1 but I got two whole books for 40 pence! I found a copy of Those Fragile Years by Rose Franken and No Drinking, No Dancing, No Doctors by Martina Evans who was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at my university and who I went to see once a week for writing advice. She is a lovely woman and I am very excited to have found her only novel (she is a poet) as I have been looking for it for a long time.

So, our book buying done we walked up the hill to the cemetery (having given up on buses in the area). Highgate Cemetery is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been to. To say it is atmospheric is an understatement. We arrived as it was just starting to drizzle and it looked stunning in the murky gloom of a drizzly autumn afternoon.

I have not yet read Audrey Niffenegger's novel Her Fearful Symmetery which features the cemetery and has sparked a lot of interest in the place. This is something I will rectify as soon as possible especially as Rachel at Book Snob and Claire at Paperback Reader rate the book so highly.

Walking around the cemetery you can easily see how the place can spark stories within the imagination of any writer. Not only are there the life stories encapsulated within every tomb but the place itself lights the imagination and triggers literary possibilities. Our tour guide was wonderful but I just wanted to wander off the whole time and spend hours reading every single head stone and tomb and I am sure that I am not the only one. The cemetery is so much bigger than I had expected.

The Victorians managed death in a really interesting way. Every aspect of death was ritualised, from the funeral service, to mourning and the carvings on the tombs themselves. Our tourguide explained the meanings behind some of the symbols which was fascinating. A broken column on a tomb is representative of someone cut down in their prime, a torch upside down is life extinguished and a wreath is the gift or achievement of resurrection through death. There were also many statues of angels above peoples tombs. Essentially two types of angel were depicted; the triumphant angel conquering death and ready for the afterlife and the sorrowful angel. In some sense I felt that death for the Victorians is what sex is for us in modern Britain. Whereas sex was the taboo in Victorian society it is death which is the taboo for us. Apparently, visiting Highgate Cemetery was a regular day out for many Victorian Londoners and their families even if they were not visiting a particular grave. Our tourguide said it would have been a bit like Kew Gardens with lots of brightly coloured exotic plants.

One of the most interesting parts of the tour was going into the catacombs which are essentially a series of corridors within which were shelves where the coffins were placed. It was really cold and dark in there and you can see the coffins in their compartments. Obviously, my imagination turned to the contents of the coffins which spooked me a little. It is a slightly odd thing to see coffins stacked in neat rows. I felt a bit lonely for the corpses as it is literally being left on a shelf. But when their relatives were alive the catacombs would have been lighter with oil lamps burning and you could go and visit your relative and, I guess, have a chat.

After we burst back in to the light and the tour was over Rachel and I decided that we were absolutely in need of a reviving cup of tea. We found High Tea of Highgate which is a really jolly little tea room that serves homemade cakes and a lovely variety of teas.
I had a slice of Lavender cake with a traditional afternoon tea and Rachel had a Scone with jam, clotted cream and some sort of Orange tea which shockingly I cannot remember the exact name of. I have a real penchant for floral flavours. Rose, violet, geranium, lavender, all of them together in one go - I am in love with anything floral tasting so I immediately went for the Lavender cake. I have to say the sponge was not as good as my mum's but it was still delicious and 'lavendery' enough for my floral requirements. The tea was superb and just what I needed after a tramp about the cemetery.

The interior decor is gorgeous and the crockery is suitably mismatched and floral. It only has tea, a selection of other hot drinks and cake on the menu so don't go expecting anything suitable for lunch unless, like us, you are perfectly happy with cake for lunch.

I am now off to prepare for another mad week - this will teach me to do two evening classes. It is Colm Toibin's fault.


  1. I liked your observation about death being our taboo. I have wondered about our attitudes to death and I have been rather surprised by attitudes to death in books written for kids. I have worked in a library where if a book contains any reference to death it is automatically classified as senior fiction regardless of the age at which it is aimed, on the grounds that anything to do with death is unsuitable for children, it has struck me as a rather unhealthy attitude to have.
    Very envious of your visit to Highgate, it is a place I would love to visit. And lavender cake yum.

  2. What a wonderful day (despite the transport issues!). Highgate is definitely a place I wished I had visited when I was in London so I am loving hearing about visits people have made there. And High Tea is one of my most favourite pastimes!!

  3. It was orange pekoe tea! Very nice it was too. Great write up - Highgate Cemetery is the sort of place that really encourages contemplation.
    I had such a lovely day, made even more lovely for having spent it with such a wonderful companion!

  4. What a lovely, amusing and evocative post! I would love to have tea and cake with you and Rachel.

    Highgate Cemetery does prompt a lot of contemplation. The symbolism was intriguing; there was one memorial that my tour-guide (the famous one!) pointed out just after the entrance where there was an empty chair carved below a pagoda/arbour to symbolise that the chair has been vacated as has the world of the person's presence.

  5. I'm enjoying a cup of Orange Pekoe tea at the moment and I had a pumpkin cupcake for lunch, phew feels good to admit that! I say why waste the calories having lunch when all you really want is the afters.

    Your day out sounds wonderful and I'm very impressed by the restraint shown in the bookshops by both you and Rachel. A tour of Highgate will definitely feature on my next itinerary and probably the tea room as well.

  6. Oh, that sounds like a fabulous day! I've been wanting to visit Highgate Cemetery for ages and you've really added to my enthusiasm. I'm excited to learn there's a good teashop nearby too, not to mention a bookshop...

  7. This sounds like it was a pleasant outing ... not something you would think to say about a cemetery trip. I'm in the middle of Her Fearful Symmetry right now and it has certainly piqued my interest in Highgate.

  8. What a lovely way to spend an autumn day! I've never heard of Highgate Cemetery, but I'll definitely have to add that to my list of places to go the next time I'm in London. I'm ashamed to say, it's your tea that I'm drooling over, however. I've never had lavender cake and it sounds incredibly delicious.