On Friday, 19th May, 2017, 9 members of the WI Flyers book club visited Highgate Cemetery in North London. We had just read Her Fearful Symmetery by Audrey Niffenegger that is set in and around Highgate Cemetery and were keen to see and experience the many places that were mentioned in the book.
After travelling from Farnborough to Archway, we walked up Highgate Hill and had an enjoyable lunch and held our book club meeting at the Angel Inn, a pub that is featured in the book. Visiting the East side of the cemetery which opened in 1860, where you can wander freely was next on our agenda. We saw the Strathcona and Mount Royal Memorial in pink granite, and the graves and memorials of Karl Marx, George Eliot, Sir Ralph Richardson, Douglas Adams and Jeremy Beadle, to name just a few.
The excellent guided tour of the West side which followed was geared towards the places mentioned in the book, Comforts Corner, Dickens Path, Lion (the stone dog that watches over Thomas Sayer, the bare fisted prize fighter and the grave of Elizabeth Siddel (muse) and Christina Rossetti (poet). We learned about the history of the cemetery, looked at the different styles of architecture and viewed the graves of many famous people to have gone before us and heard about their achievements. We saw the C of E and Dissenters Chapels, Egyptian Avenue, an imposing structure of sixteen vaults each holding 12 coffins and purchased by individual families. We then visited the Circle of Lebanon, a circle of vaults around an ancient Cedar tree. The Terrace Catacombs are mentioned multiple times in the book and we walked on the roof of these are well as visiting inside. We also saw St Michael’s Church, walked down Swains Lane and across Waterlow Park.
The whole cemetery is run by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust who have a core of paid staff and countless volunteers who do everything from guiding tours to helping maintain the landscape. We asked if anyone could be buried there and discovered that they could providing they had deep pockets!
The whole area is one of managed neglect that has an ethereal quality which is both peaceful and uplifting.
Visiting places mentioned in the book has really brought the book to life and has contributed in some very lively discussions both before and after our meeting. Members have been researching and sharing additional facts about the book and the Highgate area. We were also very interested to learn that Audrey Niffeneggar, the author, still conducts guided tours of the cemetery when she returns to England.