When I first visited Highgate Cemetery 20 odd years ago most of it looked like this – and indeed, much of it still does. Lush, wild and woolly, a haven for wild life. It is after all a wild life reserve. But what of the graves? Even the upright ones are buried in ivy – and as for those lying on the ground. Most have disappeared under not just a carpet of ivy but inches, or even feet, of soft hummus and leaves.
So one can completely understand the desire of the current cemetery management to engage with the ivy and uncover at least some of the graves. Indeed the plan, as I understand it, is to uncover as many graves as possible so that they can do an aerial survey to tally with the original plans on which all the graves are marked. And from there to create a virtual tour which could go on the website. All sounds good – although the fear is that in their eagerness to reveal lost graves, much of the wild and woolly magic of the cemetery could be lost. It is not an easy balance to strike.
However, as volunteers, it is not our problem to solve. We are just there to engage with the ivy!
This can be a slightly tedious job as all of those ivy tendrils have to be prised off ultra carefully so that in the process you do not damage either the lettering, pressed on lead in this case but sometimes carved out of the stone, or the fabric of the grave. However, last week some of us went a bit further, pulling away some of that ground hogging ivy to see what lay underneath. And look what we found…
The first grave on the right was what attracted our attention as we could just see the roundel in the middle of the cross and wondered what it was. In the event the design did not signify anything to us (maybe someone can enlighten us?) but the lettering was all quite clear. Ada Bird was the lady on the cross and around her were Andrew David Bird, and other members of the Bird family – all buried towards the end of the 19th century.
Our peckers now up, we moved on to Ada’s next door neighbours who turned out to be members of the Lampray family. However, what was fascinating about this grave was that the ivy, which had wound a massive trunk around the tree above the grave….
One of my fellow volunteers said that they thought that in their enthusiasm for revealing the graves, the authorities might decide to sever the ivy’s arms and remove it – but I rather hope they don’t.
But we were not yet done. Down below the Birds and the Lamprays one of our colleagues found a relatively recent arrival – the Human Hairpin!
As per the Magic Circle website:
Known as ‘The Human Hairpin’ Carlton – full name Arthur Carlton Phelps (1881-1942) – was one of the best comedy magicians, and card manipulators of the early 20th century and certainly one of the highest paid, earning the equivalent of over £50,000 a week at the height of his fame. He was tall and thin and accentuated his height with a wig to make his head appear elongated. He wore black tights and would speak in a falsetto voice. His nickname came about as he used to ask a member of the audience: “How would you like me for a hairpin?” His daughter Marie instigated The Magic Circle Carlton Comedy Award in 1989. He died impoverished following the decline of the music halls and is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London.
Follow that!! Best I can do is this lovely little patch of hellebores growing on one of the graves near the entrance to the East Cemetery.