The rain fell in long, cold drops as I walked the slick path leading to Highgate Cemetery. The slick pavements starts around the corner from the Highgate Cemetery bus stop and winds through fields of grass, glowing and bowing under heavy water droplets, over ponds polka-doted with ripples, and along tall oaks covered with moss like tarnished copper. The air was impregnated with the cold, clean, flowery scent of water and earth. The sky was silver and allowed enough light down to ignite red and pink wildflowers peppering the fields. I passed under a tall, spindly black gate, crossed the street dividing the East and West Cemetery ,and under the sheltered arch of the chapel guarding the West Cemetery.
Taking a break from the rain, I waited for the tour guide. I knew I would enjoy my day in the cemetery as soon as I saw the guide. He was short, smiled as he spoke, and his wide eyes brimmed with excitement through his rimless glasses as he clutched a laminated map of the over 37 acres of the cemetery to his chest. He wore a pink and blue plaid button down and cotton-lined wind breaker. His khaki zip-off pants were perfectly starched and ironed, the cargo pockets stuffed to the seams. His tan and wrinkled face was turtle-like, his wide nose and head bobbing on his long neck. His name was Gordon and I liked him more and more as he led the group deeper into the maze of the cemetery.
I followed his bouncing black umbrella up the slippery stone steps leading up to the West Cemetery. He stopped under the leaves and tree limbs reaching through the rain to the stone graves resting among the trunks to point out the grave of a coach driver. The man had set the record for taking his coach from London to Cambridge in seven hours and fifty minutes, but “the effort proved to be too much, as he promptly died after.” Gordon pointed out the symbol of an inverted horseshoe, symbolizing good luck. He stopped often to tell a similar story or reveal the meaning of a symbol, and would be off to the next stop with a nod.
The climax of his storytelling came when the tour reached the tomb of Tom Sayers. The grave is set off from the path among ferns and ivy running free along the rich, damp dirt. A mourning hound guards the stone coffin, lying at the decaying feet of his master. The rain had soaked his stone hide and fresh drops slid along a stream running from his eyes making him look like he’s crying. Gordon told the about the life of the boxer Tom Hayes and his most famous and final fight with American John Heenan. The bare-knuckled match was declared a draw when the police broke up the brawl. Hayes refused to fight afterwards and drowned in alcohol to the end of his days. Gordon’s voice faltered as he delivered the end of the tale. At Mr. Sayers’ funeral, instead of family in the procession, the boxer’s faithful dog, Lion, walked to the cemetery with a black ruffle around his neck.
This grave came towards the end of the tour. After Mr. King led the group to the newer and more open East Side of the cemetery to the graves of Karl Marx and George Eliot, he thanked us for coming on the tour despite the rain, but I loved the rain. It made the cemetery magical. The gravel paths through the West Cemetery crowded with graves and the trees living and growing among them were darkened by the sky and foliage. The trees mourned the dead as they wept over their coffins. Instead of ruining my day, as the London weather sometimes does, it amplified my tour in the Highgate Cemetery.
Highgate Cemetery’s Website: http://www.highgate-cemetery.org/