Here at London Hotels Insight we love to reveal the secret side of London that many visitors (and indeed Londoners) miss. We’ve already covered secret churches and historic pubs, so why not hidden cemeteries too?
Back in the Middle Ages, Londoners were buried close to home in the churchyards of their local parish churches. Few of the old City churchyards survive and perhaps the most atmospheric is St Olave’s, Hart Street.
By the early nineteenth century, the churchyards were overflowing and you couldn’t dig a new grave without digging up old bones.
That didn’t appeal to the snobby Victorians, so in 1832 an Act of Parliament was passed to encourage the establishment of cemeteries outside the city.
Highgate Cemetery is the most famous of London’s Victorian cemeteries, including attractions as diverse as the grave of Karl Marx and the Egyptian-style avenue in the West Cemetery (pictured below).
It even had its own vampire in the 1970s – though that might have just been a PR stunt (but when it’s dark and you’re passing through and you hear a rustle in the trees… will you still think it was a media stunt?).
The lovely thing about Highgate Cemetery is it’s fabulous variety; the Egyptian Avenue and other grandiose architectural fantasies on the one hand, with overgrown wilderness on the other. And it’s absolutely huge!
Kensal Green Cemetery was the earliest of the great Victorian cemeteries and it still has the authentic feeling of a ‘garden cemetery’ – trees, informal landscaping, sweeping alleyways and little paths.
Serene classical temples dot the landscape – only they are chapels or mausoleums; there’s a feeling of openness and peace here that you don’t find in the heavier, more gothic Highgate.
Tucked away near Earls Court exhibition centre is Brompton Cemetery.
Its plan is more formal than Kensal Green or Highgate, with long colonnades and a domed chapel at its centre. There used to be catacombs under the colonnades as a moneyspinner for the cemetery company.
In fact, no one wanted to be buried in the catacombs and the government eventually had to bail out the shareholders.
The lawns are manicured and the monuments well-kept – as you’d expect from a cemetery maintained by the Royal Parks (why I’m not quite sure!).
My personal favourite is Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington (a massively underrated area which we’ve highlighted before on this blog).
This was the first non-denominational cemetery to be established and its Egyptian-style gates breathe the same air of rationality and slightly grandiose style you’ll see at the other cemeteries.
Cluttered with trees and a gloomy Gothic chapel straight from a horror film, its angels wreathed in ivy and broken crosses strike a very sinister note.
What’s that eerie wail you hear, as twilight falls and the wind grows colder? A screaming ghost? It’s probably a fox. For all its horror-film quality, Abney Park has a more benevolent side as a haven for all sorts of wildlife.
I’ve even been on a mushroom hunt here – and perhaps surprisingly, we didn’t find a single poisonous one – so much for Gothic horror!
Finally, another favourite cemetery is the one at St Mary’s Church, Harrow on the Hill – right next to the famous old public school. It’s a little further afield in zone 5, but well worth the trip for the magnificent views alone.
But as with all the above suggestions, there’s no need to go alone at night! If, on the other hand, you can’t resist the macabre, you may also be interested in booking a stay in a haunted London hotel.
Photo credits: Nick.garrod’s photostream, Diamond geezer’s photostream, Fin Fahey’s photostream, Vivoandando’s photostream.