Symbolism and Status – An Enlightening Tour of Highgate Cemetery West

Highgate Cemetery stands on Highgate hill, with a commanding a view over London. Because of that, it became the place to be buried in Victorian times.

Image of Highgate Cemetery WestHighgate is one of seven cemeteries opened in the 1800s to relieve pressure on the horrendously overcrowded inner city church graveyards. They’d been overwhelmed by new inhabitants brought into the capital by the industrial revolution. But the Victorians weren’t high on Government interference. So the new cemeteries were all run by private companies and needed to make a profit.

Grave monument in Highgate Cemetery West

A couple of years ago I visited Highgates’ East Cemetery, so it was only a matter of time before I also made my way to the West. I love a good cemetery. It sounds morbid and part of the appeal is the Gothic nature of them. But I also like history and of course, the hidden story behind each resident. If you’re a writer, they’re good places to find inspiration.

Unlike the Highgate East, where you can wander as you wish, visits to the West are by tour only.

The £12.50 cost is reasonable, especially as the money goes towards the upkeep of the site. It does mean you can’t track down the graves of people you might be interested in, but you do get a boatload of intriguing information from an enthusiastic guide.

The main thing I learnt about is the amount of symbolism in Victorian graves. Urns represent the soul, wreaths mean victory over death, Pelicans are a symbol of piety – nothing on a Victorian burial monument is there just to look pretty. It all means something.

George Wombwell's Lion
George Wombwell’s lion

Our guide also introduced us to some of the cemeteries more interesting inhabitants.

Tomb of Tom Sayers, Highgate Cemetery
Bare-knuckle boxer Tom Sayers and dog, Lion

George Wombwell, a successful menagerist and his sleepy lion, and Tom Sayers, a successful bare-knuckle boxer and his faithful dog, Lion.

And as far as writers go, we did get a glimpse of the tomb of Radclyffe Hall, author of early lesbian novel ‘The Well of Loneliness’.

Radclyffe Hall's Tomb, Highgate
Radclyffe Hall’s tomb

The West side of the cemetery was always the poshest , positioned right at the top of the hill. There were places for the poorest yes, but these were simply a pit you shared with many others and had no gravestone. At the other end of the scale is the most expensive tomb in the place built by Julius Beer for his daughter Ada, at a cost of thousands.

Image of Ada Beer's Tomb

The cemetery still has cache to it. When we visited, there was much ado about where George Micheal would be buried (his mother is interred in a private location in the cemetery). But there’s no mistaking that years of neglect have taken their toll.

Image of Highgate cemetery West

Image of Circle of Lebanon, Highgate Cemetery West
The Circle of Lebanon

Highgate has been restored in parts but it’s still very overgrown. One of the titbits given by our guide was that the graves are leased not owned. Technically it’s the responsibility of the deceaseds relatives to maintain them. If this isn’t done, the grave would be forfit. But this isn’t enforced at the moment and , as you can imagine, many have been forgotten. It does make you wonder if one of your own relatives might be nestled around there somewhere!

Image of the Egyptian Avenue, Highgate Cemetery, West
The Egyptian Avenue

For me and many others though, the decrepit nature of the place just adds to the atmosphere. If you’re into Victorian history, graveyards, architecture, London or just after a fascinating tour this could be for you. Quick tip – if you go at the weekends, you don’t have to book but the tours are popular. We went on a cold Sunday morning in February and the tour filled up quickly.

Have you ever visited Highgate? Or another cemetery that’s captured your imagination?

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The Princess who Loved Words: Farewell Carrie Fisher

When Terry Pratchett died, it affected me because he shaped the person I am today. The same is true of Carrie Fisher, albeit in a different way.

To women of a certain age, especially those in love with fantasy, she was an icon. There weren’t a great deal of notable female characters in the genre at the time, so Princess Leia in Star Wars was a revelation. She was determined, brave, funny and caring. An excellent shot, a true friend and a rebel leader even after her entire family and planet were destroyed(. And she got Han Solo. No question, I wanted to be Leia. Many of the first stories I wrote included Princess Leia type heroines, fighting and shooting with the best of them.

When I got older, I began to appreciate her for the woman she was too. A brilliant writer and script doctor, she was outspoken and bitingly funny. She discussed her addictions and mental illness without shame. Ultimately, she loved words – and that’s my kind of Princess.

I did the traditional thing with falling in love with words, reading books and underlining lines I liked and words I didn’t know. It was something I always did.

Carrie Fisher

A Visit to Stonehenge

Even though it’s not far from neck of the woods, I’ve only just got round to visiting Stonehenge.

It helps that we’ve joined English Heritage as it’s not cheap to visit the stones. Understandable I suppose, given that it is one of the most famous sites on the planet and they have got a rather good visitors centre. Inside is a 360 display of the stones, plus an exhibition on their history and artefacts found at the site.

There’s been many a story inspired by these great, ancient stones and the burial mound covered landscape that surrounds them. I shall let the pictures speak for themselves.

Who else has been to this magnificent place? What were your thoughts?

 

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Visiting Virginia Woolf – A trip to Monk’s House

Monk’s House was once the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Today it’s owned by the National Trust. It’s a simple, unassuming 18th century cottage with a beautiful big garden and orchard.

Virginia writing shed can be found in this orchard. And she resides here too, her ashes scattered amongst the trees.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf owned this place as a retreat from London. In it they made welcome several notable members of the ‘Bluestockings’ literary and artistic set in the 1930s.

There’s a real sense of simplicity about the place. It’s a home not a grand place to show off. Which isn’t to say it’s not interesting. It’s full of books and colourful rugs, painted chairs and vases full of flowers.

If you’re a member of the NT and you’re into your authors, this is a good place to visit and it doesn’t take long to go round.

The garden is delightful and many a visitor was enjoying a picnic on that summers afternoon. You can see why Virginia and Leonard found a creative bolthole here.

I think you either love Virginia work or admire it and I’d say I fall into the latter category. I’ve read a number of her works (favourite is The Years) and I’ve been fascinated by her themes, her use of words but I’m not as passionate as I know some will be. But her influence on the literary world and development of Feminism cannot be underestimated. So if you’re in the vicinity, why not pop in and look around.

Anyone else been to Monks House?

Visiting Alice Liddells Grave

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Any fan of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ will know that its eponymous heroine is based on a real person. Alice Liddell was the fourth child in the Liddell family. They were friends with Charles Dodgson AKA Lewis Carroll and it was on a boating trip that he whipped up the tale of Alice and the White Rabbit which Alice encouraged him to write down. ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ were born.

Alice lived most of her life in and around Lyndhurst in the New Forest. And it’s handily not that far away from where I live. It seemed only right that after photographing Lewis Carroll’s final resting place, I should do the same for Alice herself.

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You can find her around the back of the rather grand St Micheal and All Angels. A handy sign points the way. On the headstone, Alice is referred to as ‘Mrs Reginald Hargreaves’, which does jar, but put that down to the times in which she lived.

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The grave itself has a rather lovely white stone memorial. It contrasts with the very apt red and white rose bushes planted inside.

 

If you’re ever passing through, I would definitely recommend stopping by to  see this charming site.

 

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Have you got a Colouring Book?

Image of colouring pencils

Adult colouring books are all the rage. And by ‘adult’ I mean they’re more complicated than ones for the kids, not that they’ve got er, ‘adult’ subject matter (maybe yours do, I’m not judging). You can’t walk into a book shop without falling over a table full of them, swoops and curls of black and white, sometimes with a hint of gold to look extra classy.

They seemed to appear as therapy for a range of mental health issues, including simple stress relief. The market for them has certainly exploded over the past couple of years, so there’s definitely a lot of people doing them.

I’ve got an Alice in Wonderland one (‘natch) that I’m working on.

As a child, colouring books were stressful, as my overwhelming perfectionism did away with any ‘fun’ I might have had. Now, older and wiser, I just go with whatever pencil comes out of the box.

Anyone else out there got the colouring book bug?

A Visit to Glasgow Necropolis

Glasgow Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis on a cold, bright morn; grand and Gothic and unsurprisingly, Victorian. Ever a society in love with death, elevating it into an art form fit for the ancients.

It’s easy to see why writers are fascinated by cities of the dead. Cemeteries tell a thousand tales. Inspiration and intrigue around every corner.

Graves in Glasgow Necropolis

Sitting on a hill in the heart of the city, the Necropolis wakes. It looks over the old and new of Glasgow, a stark mix of grey-red stone and dark shadows.

shadows and sunlight through gravestones

The living walk amoung the dead, tourists, visitors and others poetically extolling virtues of life over breakfast beers

Mausoleum in Glasgow Necropolis

The grandest mausoleums sit on the prime spot at the very top of the hill. They show off wealth from the then-new industrial classes. Everlasting memorials to countless engineers and entrepreneurs, doctors, priests and generals.

More graves in Glasgow Necropolis

You have no choice but to wander. No-one’s in a hurry. Walk and wind between the long forgotten and remember their tales.

Grave at Glasgow Necropolis

On the other side of the hill a great screeching disturbs the dawn. An industrial site behind this resting place belches clouds of smoke and noise enough to wake the dead.

Smoke and atomsphere in Glasgow Necropolis

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Music to write to – Badlands by Halsey

A random YouTube mix brought US singer Halsey into my life by way of the video for New Americana. After viewing and listening to a number of her other tracks, I was impressed enough to buy her album ‘Badlands’.

I haven’t enjoyed an album so much in a long time. In fact my only complaint is that it’s too short and left me wanting more. There were no duff tracks, just lyrical pop gems in my opinion. I liked the strong Feminist streak through the album and the songs that dealt with mental illness that Halsey herself has experience of. My highlights are ‘Ghost’ an upbeat but melancholy search for love and ‘Haunting’ which pleads with a lover to stay, even if the relationship is over. ‘Control’ brings up questions of mental health and inner turmoil in disturbing fashion. I can imagine listening to this when writing something with well-defined female characters, perhaps in the Young Adult arena.

If you give it a listen, tell me what you think.

A Tour of The British Library

The British Library

One of the main things I wanted to do when I visited London, was go on a tour of The British Library. I booked the tickets beforehand to make sure we had a place but being a Tuesday morning there were only six of us on the tour anyway.

We started the tour with a trip outside to see the building and learn some interesting facts.

The British Library

The building was designed in 1960s by Colin St John Wilson but due to delays and relocations, that design bares little resemblance to what was actually built.

Bust of Colin St John Wilson
Bust of Colin St John Wilson

It was meant to be built near to the British Museum where the library was first kept. In the end that wasn’t possible so it wound up across the city near to St Pancras Station.

The foundation stone was laid in 1982 and the building opened in 1997. The project went wildly over-budget until the government cut off funding at which point it just stopped being built, with unfinished bits left, well, unfinished.

The British Library internal structure
An unfinished bit of the library.

Below the library is the basement which goes down eight storeys and stores most of the libraries books. The film “Alien” was shot there whilst it was being built. We didn’t get to go down there but hopefully no alien’s got left behind after they finished!

Model of the British Library
The basement of the library.

To store the new books it receives, the library is now having to build a new premises in Boston Spa, outside of London. By law, every book published in the UK has to have a copy sent to the library. They receive about 8,000 a day. Even newspapers and magazines have to send copies in – including the pornographic ones!

As far as ‘behind-the-scenes’ goes, we didn’t see too much but our guide did show us how requested books are hand-picked then whizzed around the building. And we got an eagle-eye view of one of the reading rooms.

The British Library reading room
We see you!

We also learnt more about The King’s Library, donated by King George IV after he inherited it from his father. It’s kept in this rather snazzy area in the middle of the main atrium and can only be accessed by about 30 people.

The King's Library
The King’s Library

I also have to mention the gift shop because it’s like heaven for any lover of literature, with souvenir postcards, bags, badges, notebooks, pens etc as well as actual books both fiction and non-fiction.

The British Library gift shopThe British Library gift shop

All the pretty, pretty things. I wanted to jump in them and swim about, but that’s probably frowned upon.

Anyhoo, I know the question you want to ask which is “Wordlander, did you get a notebook?”

Alice in Wonderland notebook

Of course I did – but more about that in another blog post!

I hope you enjoyed my ‘taster’ of my British Library tour. They only appear to be going on until 30th September this year so if you’re interested get in there quick!

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Today is Roald Dahl Day

A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men.

Today is Roald Dahl day! I feel a bit guilty because I didn’t know this existed until a few days ago and Dahl is one of my favourite authors. How could I not know when his birthday was?

Still I know now so I have an excuse to talk about my favourite book of his is “Matilda”. Being a smart, bookish child (but no way near as smart as Matilda is) I felt an important connection to her character. Fortunately I had much nicer parents and teachers than she did! There’s a pretty decent film version of the book directed by and starring Danny DeVito.

And there’s a musical version that’s received tremendous reviews. Unfortunately I have yet to see it but it’s on the to-do list.

His work for adults is often overshadowed by his books for children, but I particularly like his short stories. His dark streak is shown in a much deeper hue in many of them.

So what’s your favourite Roald Dahl book?