Studies in Verticality #4

West Highgate Cemetery, earlier today


There are better reasons for going here than to look at the grave of Karl Marx. This is the creepiest place in London; no Dickensian stretch of the river can match this calculated exercise in stucco horror, now itself decomposing. The entrance is well downhill in Swain's Lane, and at first the landscape is ordinary. But as you wind up the hill it becomes more and more overgrown, choked in winter by dead fronds with an unnerving resemblance to Spanish moss. The landscape looks less and less like London, more and more like Louisiana. Then, with a shock like a bloodcurdling scream, the Egyptian entrance shows up. Beyond it, the Catacombs, a sunken rotunda lined with stucco-faced vaults, gently deliquescent, crumbling away. Inside them, coffins on ledges. A familiar name like Carl Rosa on one of the vaults seems to accentuate the terror. Nothing seems real but death at its greyest and clammiest. The cemetery closes well before dark, and a good job too.

--Ian Nairn, Nairn's London (Penguin, 1966), p. 212.

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