Month 3: Highgate

I got really excited to see that my coin landed on part of Highgate Cemetery. I knew that it was an enchanting place, with lots of interesting old tombstones, and the site where Karl Marx was buried. I got less excited when I realised that the coin had landed on the West half of the cemetery, which is not open to the public except as part of a guided tour. I went ahead and booked a ticket, knowing that my photographic opportunities would be limited, as the tour lasts only 1 hour and takes place at 1:45pm each day. No moody morning or dusk shots for me. But taking what you can get is what this project is all about.

The days leading up to the shoot were bitterly cold, and full of snow. The romantic in me said that it would make the cemetery even more mysterious, the photographer in me shuddered at the thought of balancing for all that white, and the rest of me just shuddered at the thermometer: a high of 2 degrees. At least the sun was shining a bit.

Mary Sancton, Died 1565
Mary Sancton, Died 1565

Highgate is hilly. Massively hilly. Huge, steep hills, which are treacherous in 6 inches of snow. Having trudged up the hill to the cemetery entrance, I joined the group for the tour somewhat breathless before we even started. I was snapping a few shots during the tour guide’s introductory speech, at which point he mentioned how they don’t take kindly to stragglers, so please keep with the group, especially you photographers. I knew right away I was going to get on his nerves. He then talked us through the safety rules: apparently much of the ground is unstable, and many of the tombstones are too. Over the centuries, nature has invaded and this means it’s quite dangerous to stray from the paths which the guides use. (‘Great’ I thought. ‘Even more limitations.’)

He and his female counterpart led us into the grounds, pausing occasionally to point out particular graves of interest amongst the overgrown vines, some of which had burst right through the stone. No matter where we stopped, it never seemed long enough, and I soon found myself and another photographer straggling behind, much to the dismay of the female guide, whose job it was to round up the group from the back. More than once she had a strong word with me and the other guy, so I tried my best to keep up while still managing to frame up a few shots… including one with the female guide in it, as we rounded a curved mausoleum. Funnily enough, this was my favourite shot of the day, and the only one which didn’t look like a throwaway snapshot to me.

I left feeling good that I had come, having learned a lot and seen a part of London that few people get to see. But it certainly wasn’t a photographic triumph. And the sun was already going down by the time the tour finished, so I couldn’t even spend much time in the surrounding area (it was too cold to be enjoyable, anyway). One day, I hope to come back to Highgate Cemetery, this time to the other half where I can spend as long as I like. And if I do, I will pick a warmer day, for sure.

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