Highgate is a fairly large area of North London
, with Highgate Village in the centre, at the top of Highgate Hill. The area was
originally fields belonging to the Hornseys of Hornsey Park, where the thirteenth-century Bishops of London used to hunt deer.
By the fifteenth century a toll-gate
had been built on the hill and a small village grew up around it, with a village green, and an
inn where travellers on their way in or out of London could break their journey. So came Dick Whittington
, thrice Lord Mayor
of London. The stone marking the spot where he and his cat famously turned again is at the bottom of Highgate Hill, near the
hospital that's named after him. In 1424 he left a sum of money in his will for the founding of almshouse
s, built where the
hospital stands today, and later used as infectious disease wards for the city's plague
The original Tudor village remained fairly intact until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when London's massive
expansion started lapping at its edges. In 1811 a disastrous attempt was made to tunnel through the hill to make a new road.
The tunnel collapsed, killing several people. The following year the Archway bridge was built, and the area at the bottom of the
hill bacame known as Archway. The present bridge was built in 1900 and is locally called Suicide Bridge: it was built with high
walls and heavy wrought-iron spikes along it, to deter would-be leapers. By this time the hill and the streets around it had
developed into genteel suburbia, but the village centre on top of the hill retained its Tudor layout, and still does.
Highgate is overloaded with preservation societies aiming to keep it a quaint little village, and they've more or less succeeded,
partly because there is so much money here: it's near the top of expensive places to live in London. This means that the old
houses are mostly immaculately restored and well-kept, and the local green areas well-tended and full of flowers. The village
sits surrounded by woods on one side and Hampstead Heath on the other, and its height means the views are spectacular,
especially at night. Just under the village as you come down the hill is Waterlow Park, a green slope with a small ornamental
lake and public tennis courts. Behind the park is Highgate Cemetery.
Once a private estate and manor, the land lay fallow and the building derelict for around a hundred years before the London
Cemetery Company bought it in 1839 and built their showpiece cemetery. It became a tourist attraction: beautifully
landscaped, with every tomb a Gothic work of art and grandly designed Egyptian-style catacombs. Later, when cremation
became popular, the company's profits dived and the cemetery's gardeners were laid off. It became overgrown and vandalised.
Kids broke into the tombs and catacombs, the area became dangerous and the gates were finally locked in 1975. Shortly
after its closure a conservation group formed to restore the cemetery, and now run the place. On the east side, you can see
Karl Marx's famous big black headstone. The west side, round which there are guided tours every two hours, has the amazing
Gothic monuments and the catacombs. Damp shiny brick passages black with age, lined with spooky niches holding slowly
rotting nineteenth-century coffins. Kind of fun.