The Highgate Catacombs
Yes, there are catacombs in Highgate cemetery - and these are one of the very few catacombs in Britain that are open to the public. This is the 'West' cemetery - the older part. The catacombs date from the original lay-out of in the late 1830s. They are on just about the highest spot - the terrace above them backs on to St Michael's, Highgate's parish church.
The catacombs are airy and fairly well lit. They are not subterranean so are neither musty nor excessively spooky. But it is a little unnerving to see coffins on display. These would be three-ply: a hardwood initial lining, in turn sealed in a lead coffin, with the decorated wood outer layer that can be glimpsed here.
A little downhill from the catacombs is the Egyptian avenue leading to the Circle of Lebanon, a full circle of burial vaults with - until last year - a Lebanese cedar in the middle. The tree had to be removed last year - it was decaying and posing a threat to both the vaults and visitors. A new cedar has been planted - but it will be some decades before it gains anything like the girth and splendour of the original.
One of the vaults is the burial place of the novelist Radclyffe Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness. She shares the vault with her lover, Mabel Batten.
The west cemetery is still occasionally used for interments. George Michael is buried here - though that grave is off-limits to visitors - and so too is Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was killed by radiation poisoning in 2006.
Highgate's west cemetery is open only for booked and guided tours - it's well worth it!
I went in search yesterday of William John Pinks. It's strange to set off in pursuit of someone who died 160 years ago. But, after a fashion, I found him.
So, who was he? Well, he was among the best - and most productive - of the battalion of antiquarians and local historians of Victorian London. Some years ago, in a review of the Survey of London volumes about Clerkenwell, I paid a tribute to this rather tragic figure:
William John Pinks had been buried for five years in Highgate cemetery when his huge and ambitious History of Clerkenwell first appeared in book form. It is among the most impressive London parish histories of the Victorian era. The antiquarianism is tempered by contemporary anecdote and a keen social eye, and its 800 pages are enlivened by scores of engravings – among them one depicting the author’s grave. Pinks was himself a Clerkenwellian, apprenticed as a bookbinder, and later a full-time contributor to the ‘Clerkenwell News’, the first and most successful of London’s district papers. He died from TB at the age of thirty-one.
When J.T. Pickburn, the proprietor of the ‘Clerkenwell News’, published Pinks’s local history in 1865, it was the high water mark of prosperous, industrious Clerkenwell. A second edition, in essence unchanged, appeared in 1880 – the format of the book, reflecting Clerkenwell’s fortunes, a little more cramped and pinched in appearance. The ‘Clerkenwell News’ had by then metamorphosed into the much grander ‘Daily Chronicle’ which, as the ‘News Chronicle’, remained a leading national daily until 1960.
So it was of course William John Pinks's grave that I was seeking yesterday, in the older west section of Highgate Cemetery. And with the help of a guide, Charles, I found it - though as it was some distance away from any of the paths, I couldn't venture there myself (health and safety etc).
Charles did, for which many thanks - and while from the plan he had of the cemetery this is certainly Pink's grave and tombstone, he couldn't immediately make out any of the inscription.
Pinks's magnum opus, The History of Clerkenwell, provides us with the text of the inscription -
It's worth including here the account of Pinks which appeared in the volume he wrote, which was first published towards the end of 1865 -
The history was a stupendous achievement - of both author and of the editor, Edward J. Wood. It is certainly antiquarian, but Pinks also knew well the streets he wrote about and every now-and-again he gives a sense of the Clerkenwell of his day as well as earlier days. There is an account, for example, of the arrival of the Metropolitan Railway and the building of Farringdon station - events he would have witnessed as a teenager.
Pinks's History appeared in a second edition in 1880. And rather marvellously it was republished in a facsimile edition in 2001 - an edition which sold out. Not many local histories have such a long life.
And if you don't know where Clerkenwell is, perhaps the folding map included in the History may help!
Highgate Cemetery East
An open day for local residents today at Highgate East cemetery - that's the 'newer' of the two wings of this wonderful valhalla. It's where Marx and George Eliot are buried, and it's still open for interments.
The chunky Grade 1 listed Marx memorial dates from the 1950s - he was moved from a more hidden away spot where the stone appears to have been vandalised. Among those who followed in his footsteps, Eric Hobsbawm, Raph Samuel and Paul Foot are buried nearby. As, by chance, is George Jacob Holyoake, the cooperator and freethinker, whose grave is adorned by a bust - that's him with the stylishly long hair and beard.
And there is of course the charm of the remarkable, the outlandish and the unexpected.
Highgate Camp revisited
A year or so ago, I blogged about a small war memorial in Highgate which was quite literally falling apart - and with it remembrance of those who served at Highgate Camp and lost their lives in the First World War. That's the memorial as it was on the left. When I chanced upon it this afternoon, I discovered that it has been splendidly restored.
There are two memorials either side of a gateway at the top of Swains Lane, just a minute's stroll from Pond Square. There was something elegiac about the manner in which they were crumbling away - and part of me wonders whether that is the most poetic fate. But I imagine those whose forbears are commemorated here will much prefer this new lease of life for the memorial - and now in a century's time, the names should still be decipherable, and some of those who stop and take notice will ponder on the tragedy which befell this nation - indeed the world, for this was a global conflict - in what contemporaries called the Great War.
The facing memorial, to J. Dawbarn Young, has also been replaced. This wasn't as tarnished, but it's clearly appropriate that both memorials should match. James Dawbarn Young was a barrister whose passion for yachting led him to enroll in the naval reserves, and reach the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He died 96 years ago this week.
These are of course memorials not graves. But just a short distance down Swains Lane lies Highgate Cemetery, which in the spring has a quiet enchantment to it. I hope you agree.
What Dartmouth Park posse?
For the past thirteen years (with a few years off in Delhi for good behaviour) I have lived in a north London house with 'Dartmouth Park' in its postal address. We're not in the Dartmouth Park conservation area - not in the sort of white stuccoed four-storey 1860s terraced house which sells for £1.6 million - but like to feel we're in nodding distance. Still, it's come as a surprise to learn first from 'The Times' and now from Anne McElvoy in the 'Evening Standard' that we're part of pinkish London's biggest socio-political hotspot.
It was only after Ed Miliband's fratricidal triumph that I discovered he was almost a neighbour - he and his partner had bought, yes, a white stuccoed four-storey terraced house at the Heath end of Dartmouth Park Road. Now, says Anne McElvoy, there's a 'Dartmouth Park posse' of Milibands, Kinnocks and associated hangers-on which is giving our area a touch of class.
Well, I've only spotted Ed once, pushing a buggy on the Heath - and have yet to alight (knowingly at least) on a Kinnock. The late Adrian Mitchell used to live nearby - you can still spot the house from the 'Stop the War' posters in the windows. I occasionally see the novelist Julian Barnes making his way up Dartmouth Park Hill. But for such a well-heeled enclave, Dartmouth Park is astonishingly free of celebrity.
Lots of lawyers, a few behind-the-scenes cultural types, not much in the way of famous faces. A bit like the old part of Highgate cemetery (Karl Marx and George Eliot are in the 'new' bit, the Eastern Cemetery), where there's lots and lots of old bones, and almost all remarkably anonymous.
Anne McElvoy, by the way, lives in ultra-fashionable Amwell, where Peter Mandelson once had a flat. Not many know where Amwell is - but it's chic, smart, with wonderful architecture, and easy walking distance from Fleet Street. Let's learn a little more about that posse.
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