My Peregrinations

Winging my way through life

Month: September 2016 (Page 1 of 2)

London in five days: Visiting Highgate Cemetery (East)

Visiting Highgate Cemetery was literally and figuratively the high point of my trip to London. Going to a cemetery isn’t high on many people’s list of things to do when they’re on holiday (especially if you’re Asian and superstitious), but I like cemeteries and Highgate promised to be quite a memorable experience.

Set into a steep hillside with commanding views of the London back in the day, Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 as a response to London’s rapid population growth, which brought with it numerous problems, including cholera. Highgate was one of seven cemeteries commissioned during that time to try to solve the problem of overwhelming demand for burial plots. Because of its location and landscaping, it was marketed as a premium good, so only posh people with money to spare could be buried there. However, the cemetery was largely forgotten and went into decline until it was rescued in the 1970s by a group of people who formed the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust.

Since then, the trust has put in a lot of effort to restore some of the more prominent graves in the cemetery while maintaining the site’s status as a nature reserve. This, of course, costs a lot to do, so visiting Highgate Cemetery involves a fee of £4 for adults to visit the East Cemetery, where Karl Marx and Douglas Adams are buried. To tour the West Cemetery, the fee is £12 and includes admission to the East Cemetery. The tour can’t be booked on weekends, so I highly recommend visiting on a weekday – it’s less crowded anyway. You can book the tour online here.

I turned up bright and early at 11am to tour the East Cemetery. To get there, I took the Tube to Archway, then caught a bus two stops to Waterlow Park. It was a pleasant stroll through the park to the entrance of the cemetery.

There were few other visitors when I arrived, so the pathways were peaceful and all one could hear was birds chirping in the trees.

There were few other visitors when I arrived, so the pathways were peaceful and all one could hear were birds chirping in the trees.

There are over 50,000 graves all told in Highgate Cemetery, and a good number of them are in the East Cemetery. Here are some of the more notable ones:

Douglas Adams' grave

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I had trouble finding the grave because it was so nondescript – tucked into the side of a small knoll amid much more imposing gravestones. But Adams’ fans obviously have no trouble finding his headstone.

Malcolm Mclaren's grave

Malcolm Mclaren – the man who claimed to have invented punk. Interesting choice of quote.

Harry Thornton was a concert pianist who died of influenza in 1918. He is thought to have entertained troops during World War One.

Harry Thornton was a concert pianist who died of influenza in 1918. He is thought to have entertained troops during World War One.

Anna Mahler was the daughter of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. She was a successful stone and bronze sculptor.

Anna Mahler was the daughter of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. She was a successful stone and bronze sculptor and led a rather dramatic life, which included five marriages.

I took so many pictures at the East Cemetery, I could go on posting endlessly, but I will stop with this last one. This is the one grave that you cannot miss. Karl Marx’s grave is huge and imposing, and stands along one of the main paths near other graves of like-minded thinkers such as Hekmat Mansoor, who was an Iranian Marxist theorist and founder of the worker-communist movement. Marx’s original grave was somewhere deep in the bowels of the cemetery, but it was moved out to the main road, as it were, because so many people wanted to see it.

Larger than life and twice as natural.

Larger than life and twice as natural.

I spent nearly three hours just walking the winding paths and stopping to read inscriptions on gravestones. Before I knew it, it was time to visit the West Cemetery, which I shall write about in a future post. If you’ve got time to spare, visiting Highgate Cemetery should definitely be on your to-do list. It’s off the beaten path for most, but it’s well worth a visit.

Tips for getting around London

Getting around London is very easy, once you’ve gotten the hang of how things work. I was travelling on a budget, so I was determined not to set foot in a single cab during my time in the city. Cabs are notoriously expensive, not to mention shady if you inadvertently flag down a non-legit one. So it was buses and the Tube for me.

I used this website to figure out which TravelCard would give me the best value during my time in London. Based on my itinerary and length of stay, I bought the 7-day Zones 1-2 TravelCard, which would allow me unlimited rides on the Tube and buses to cover my entire time in London. I used Google Maps to find my way around. I also bought a prepaid GiffGaff SIM card that let me use data with abandon.  If you’re in Singapore, there’s a distributor that will send you the SIM card free. All they ask is that you like and share their Facebook page.

On the Tube

An empty Tube carriage. This was taken during my journey to the airport for my return flight, early in the morning on a Saturday.

The Tube system is very comprehensive for getting around London. You don’t have to walk very far before you chance upon a Tube station. That also means that the network is rather convoluted, and the underground tunnels that connect lines and platforms can be confusing, as well as tiring to traverse. Ventilation is an issue, which is why Transport for London has signs all over the place reminding people to carry a bottle of water to stay hydrated during their journeys.

Not all Tube stations are disabled-friendly, so if you’re travelling with someone who is wheelchair-bound, you’ll need to check if there is a little wheelchair icon next to the name of the station you would like to use. If there is an icon, that means there is step-free access. Even if you’re able-bodied, the sheer number of stairs that you have to navigate can be very tiring, especially if you’re making your way to or from the airport with luggage.

Buses are really easy to ride – every bus I rode had an electronic destination display that told me the name of the next stop. The only trouble was that sometimes, the stop name didn’t match what was in Google maps, so I found myself missing my stop once or twice. It wasn’t a big deal, though. I simply backtracked, and resumed navigation.

Docked bike-share bikes - Santander Cycles

Docked bike-share bikes – this one is by Santander Cycles.

If you’re very confident on a bike, and have good navigation skills, then getting around London on a bike might be for you. There are a few bike-share schemes in London, and they are available at docking stations all over the city. They’re great for short trips within the city. You simply pay £2, which will get you the first 30 minutes of your journey free. Thereafter, you pay another £2 for each extra 30 minutes. I didn’t try this because I don’t like cycling on the road and London traffic isn’t very forgiving – more than once, I saw altercations between motorists and pedestrians. I also didn’t want to be encumbered by a bike while exploring.

Public transport is really your best option for getting around London. Trains and buses run till late, are affordable and convenient, and are generally safe. Before I left home, I read a few TripAdvisor forum posts by travellers who were worried about their backpacks being slashed while on the train. I was naturally slightly concerned, being a worrywart. So I decided to bring a messenger bag instead of a backpack, thinking that it would be safer. Big mistake – the messenger bag wreaked hell on my neck and shoulders, and I ended up buying a £60 Herschel backpack on my second day. As long as you’re alert and sensible, you should be able to carry a backpack anywhere in London with no fear.

London in five days: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was the first attraction I visited on my first day in London. The main reason was its location less than 20 minutes from the AirBNB apartment. I simply caught the train from Bermondsey to Southwark and took a 15 minute walk to get there.

A visit to the Globe costs £15 and grants you access to an exhibition about the history of the area south of the Thames, the growth of the local theatre industry, and Shakespeare’s role in all of it, as well as a guided tour of the theatre itself. I didn’t find the exhibition particularly interesting. Perhaps I was woolly-headed from the red-eye flight.

The tour, however, was excellent. My group’s guide, Callum, was not only engaging but extremely knowledgeable about the Globe’s history, as well as about Shakespeare’s work. Listening to him speak about the construction of the theatre, how plays were staged in Shakespeare’s day, and how they are staged today, was enlightening. He also tended to declaim passages from various Shakespearean plays at the drop of a hat, so it was like a free performance thrown in. We didn’t just stand on the ground floor and look up at the stalls, we went up to the second and third levels so we could see the view from above. If you’re looking to attend a play at the Globe, I think the best seats are to be found on the second level. The seats are hard wood, though, so you’ll want to rent a cushion for comfort.

The tour alone was worth the price of admission. Unfortunately, you don’t get to pick your guide. When you buy your ticket, the person manning the counter will tell you what time your assigned tour group will depart.

I would have liked to watch a play at the Globe during my trip. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth were playing but predictably, tickets were sold out. Maybe next time!

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