I’d arranged for Friday 2nd June to join a group of Friends of St Mary’s Primrose Hill in a guided tour of Highgate Cemetery. Knowing the “nature” of this cemetery from visits in the late 1970s / early 80s, I took my binoculars with me but realised too late I’d left my camera at home. My featured image is therefore the scan of a photo taken on an Easter Sunday Open Day 6th April 1980!
When I started work with Camden Libraries late August 1975, I was introduced to Highgate Cemetery by the then Local Studies Librarian, Malcolm Holmes, who was involved with the recently formed Friends of Highgate Cemetery. Highgate Cemetery opened 1839 as one of 7 private cemeteries to circle London but 100 years later it was passing into long terminal decline with the London Cemetery Company finally declared bankrupt in 1960. The larger United Cemetery Company struggled to keep the cemetery afloat for the next 15 years but funds eventually ran out and the gates were closed. The Cemetery faced a bleak and uncertain future. Nature took over and vandals had their day… So in 1975 the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust was founded with the aim “…to promote the conservation of the cemetery, its monuments and buildings, flora and fauna, for the benefit of the public as an environmental amenity.”
As our guide, the Visitor Experience Manager Nick Powell, explained, the cemetery would originally have had a “manicured” look with no trees. By the 1970s it would not have been practical to return to such tidiness so the policy is for “managed neglect” and the cemetery is indeed a Nature Conservation Area.
Two more photos from nearly 40 years ago (March 1978) show barer trees and a browner landscape than the lush greenery we saw on our June 2017 tour. We didn’t see the piano on this occasion. We were taken into the Catacombs and through the Egyptian Gate. We were introduced to famous Victorians whose names are largely forgotten. We were shown a dog, a lion and a horse as well as many angels (one unusually recumbent).
From one particularly wild point, we were shown bat and bird boxes and heard about the resident fox family. While in the cemetery, I heard and/or saw Blue Tits, Blackbird, Ring-necked Parakeet, Robin, Wood Pigeon, Wren and Magpie.
After the tour, I’d have liked to go with the group into the East Cemetery. (Memories of tours with Malcolm Holmes: Karl Marx with Herbert Spencer opposite and overlooked by St Michael’s Church = the Marks and Sparks corner.) It would have been nice to walk through Waterlow Park and/or explore Highgate Village. But it was already gone 12.30 and I was feeling hungry. I decided to return to Parliament Hill Fields.
Earlier, as I’d panted hurriedly up Swains Lane, I’d heard a Goldcrest but had no time to look for it. I didn’t linger on the way down either though spotted a Great Tit and, shortly after 1pm, I’d used the facilities and was enjoying a pasta dish at the cafe. Refreshed and rested, I’d hoped to walk home over Hampstead Heath but I could hear faint rumblings of thunder and the clouds looked menacing so I went to the nearby bus stop instead. I nevertheless noted a Crow and a pair of Blackbirds on the Cricket Pitch opposite the cafe, Parakeets in the trees above and Jackdaws flying over. I also heard a Greenfinch. Got home just before the downpour!