Graveyards are fairly morbid places – the preserve of stooping, ashen-faced figures in top-hats and tails – they cannot be perused while skipping or whistling happy tunes. However, here in London there is much enjoyment to be had for the casual tourist with a taste for the macabre. Dotted around the outskirts there are seven early 19th Century commercial cemeteries listed by English Heritage and all of them are oozing with gothic Victorian ectoplasm. Tick off two of the best with this spook-filled walk through three northern boroughs.
Interred in the east and west lying portions of Highgate Cemetery – the once alleged chomping-ground of the Highgate Vampire – are the bones of more than 150 thousand people. Since opening in 1839 it has been a popular final destination for the well-known or well-moneyed, and as a consequence, the gardens are home to many elaborate or even extravagant monoliths, tombs and gravestones. Some of these structures, such as the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon, lie in the western section and are well worth a visit but for the purpose of this walk, start at the entrance to the east of Swains Lane where visitors, for a small admission fee (£3), can explore without an escort.
It is worth buying a map to locate the most significant burial places among the web of ivy-strewn trails. The gravestone of Douglas Adams for instance – the author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy – is remarkable for its modesty and easily missed. The epitaph reads simply, 'Writer', which is ironic in itself when you think about it, typical Adams. Several metres away you will find the altogether more self-important resting place of Karl Marx. Glowering over the top of this great socialist's tomb is a colossal bearded bust that could eat children whole. Here was a man who put the head in headstone.
Upon leaving the cemetery, stroll up to Highgate village through Waterlow Park and drop down near the tube station onto the Parkland Walk. This brooding tree-lined corridor stretches for two miles along a former branch of the Great Northern Railway which was constructed in 1867 but closed to passengers after the war in 1954. It takes in a number of old cuttings and bridges and an abandoned station platform where more than a few crackpots claim to have heard the ghostly chugging of forgotten steam-trains.
As the pathway passes through Crouch End look out for Marilyn Collins' sculpture of a Spriggan, an impish creature of legend which inspired a Stephen King short story and can be found peeling itself from a recess in the wall. One wonders what kind of goat-like vengeance will be wreaked on the kids who have cruelly covered its home in graffiti.
From the Parkland Walk, cut through both Finsbury Park and Clissold Park to Church Street and down to the rear entrance of Abney Park Cemetery. This dense, rambling plot was at one time the only cemetery-cum-arboretum in Europe and was filled with thousands of exotic shrubs, arranged alphabetically by someone who probably didn't get out much. It was opened in 1840 and has been variously a non-denominational burial ground, a commercially-run enterprise and a council-owned nature reserve.
The shrouded groves and pathways, teeming with gravestones, provide ample opportunity to ambush your loved one and scare the living crap out of them. But the pièce de résistance is the dilapidated chapel which stands at the centre. There is something distinctly gothic about this sorry structure which has been brought to disrepair in recent times by vandals and thieves.
If there are ghosts to be found here then you would expect them to be wearing military uniform – 371 servicemen and women from the two world wars are buried in Abney Park, many of them named on the Cross of Sacrifice Memorial which lies beyond the south facing wall of the chapel. Dozens more people who died nearby during the blitz are interred in the cemetery and indeed you may want to watch your footing – an unexploded WWII bomb is believed to lie somewhere in the grounds.
The Fox Reformed
The Fox Reformed Wine Bar and Restaurant
To round off this long walk, allay your nerves with a well-tempered draught from the Fox Reformed wine bar on Church Street. Not only is it a charming boozer, it has a small shrine, complete with raven, to that great purveyor of gothic literature, Edgar Allan Poe, who was schooled on the site in the early 19th Century.
I've never been to the North London cemeteries, but I thought Nunhead and Brompton cemeteries were fantastic. Nunhead was so overgrown and eerie when I visited, it was a very weird experience (especially since nobody else was around).