diamond geezer

 Monday, January 17, 2011

Random borough (28): Camden (part 2)

Somewhere famous: Highgate Cemetery
The only thing that brings international tourists to Archway station is a dead body. That of Karl Marx, to be precise, who was buried nearby in 1883. There's even a "Karl Marx Tea Rooms" halfway between the station and the cemetery, where an opportunistic pub attempts to relieve weary pilgrims of their cash. Karl's buried in the eastern half of Highgate Cemetery, accessible to respect-payers for £3, and also home to Douglas Adams, Jeremy Beadle and George Elliot. But this is just the overflow. The original interment area is the western cemetery, opened in 1839 on the slopes of Highgate. This was one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries opened around the perimeter of early Victorian London for private burial, and its hillside location soon made it the destination of choice for wealthy corpses. So that's the half I visited. Sorry Karl, you'll have to wait for another time.

When a group of volunteers took over the upkeep of Highgate in the mid 1970s, the Western Cemetery was in a terrible state. Vaults had been desecrated, tree roots had damaged the stonework and the entire site had been overrun by vegetation. The Friends cleared things up, maintaining the site as "a social history museum in a nature reserve", and now allow visitors inside for guided tours. During the winter that's hourly at weekends, whereas during the rest of the year there's 2pm weekdays too. Make sure you arrive by five to rather than five past, otherwise you'll be locked outside the iron gates to wait for the next tour. Seven quid, brief health & safety spiel, and in you go.



The guides are great, or at least the bloke I went round with was. He stopped every minute or so to point out another grave, explain some Victorian symbolism or show us a historic document from his folder. The first grave past the colonnade, for example, belonged to horse-drawn coach entrepreneur James Selby (London to Brighton return in under eight hours), while halfway up the first path was Charles Cruft (who only ever owned cats, but earned fame by being manager of a dog biscuit company). The occasional monument has "danger"-stamped yellow tape wrapped round it, but most lurk in the evergreen undergrowth at perfectly safe angles. One single snowdrop had reached the budding stage on Selby's tomb, but our guide recommended early spring as the best time to see the woodland environment in all its glory.

There's only time on the one-hour tour to head up to the top of the cemetery and back. But the top of the cemetery is outstanding. An ancient cedar tree on the summit has been surrounded by a ring of sunken vaults, entered up an Egyptian avenue which looks it's straight out of an Indiana Jones film. Only the richest internees could afford a plot here in the Circle of Lebanon. One vault belongs to lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall, marked by an eye-level plaque and some droopy, sodden, dying flowers. Up above is the cemetery's grandest memorial - the pyramid-topped mausoleum of Julius Beer. He was a Jewish German immigrant who bought up the Observer newspaper in a vain attempt to raise his standing in English society (a bit like a 19th century Robert Maxwell), but achieved dominance only after death. Our guide allowed us to peer through Beer's door at the marble angel and gold-leaf roof, as well as taking us inside the neighbouring catacombs to view a selection of decayed coffins.

The descent back to the entrance took us past a most unexpected intruder. When the cemetery owners were in financial trouble back in the 1960s they sold off three plots of land for housing. One of these was recently rebuilt upon in unapologetically futuristic style, so now there's a glass box with pointed fins overshadowing the Dissenters burial ground. Our guide sensibly offered no comment whatsoever on this architectural invasion (and neither will I, because the owner reads this blog), but the rest of the tour party were united in aghast condemnation. "How did that ever get planning permission?" "A bit close to Michael Faraday, isn't it?" "Would be perfectly lovely somewhere else, but not here." They might be dead right, but I bet the view from the living room is stunning.
by tube: Archway   by bus: C11

Somewhere sporty: Parliament Hill Lido
Camden's not renowned for its sport. There are no major (nor even major-ish) football teams here. No important stadia are based within the borough boundaries. Even the 2012 Olympic cycling road race has been shamelessly diverted to run elsewhere. So it's swimming or nothing, most notbaly in the four outdoor swimming pools on Hampstead Heath. Three are up on the Heath proper - three bathing ponds which began their lives as reservoirs in the upper Fleet Valley. One's mixed, one's for men only and the other (the only screened by trees) is for cold-dipper ladies. The hardiest Hampstead souls swim here daily, whatever the water temperature, whereas others only turn up on sweatier summer days to parade in their swimwear. The fourth and final pool is a little more mainstream, and an integral part of the community since 1938. The Parliament Hill Lido.

The lido's one of three built around London at the same time, each to the same design. Victoria Park's is long gone, Brockwell Park's has been upgraded, and only Parliament Hill's looks much as it did. From outside that's a brutalist brick entrance plus a surrounding wall high enough to keep out all potential spectators. The pool itself is massive, measuring 60m by 27m (or roughly quarter of a professional football pitch). That's big enough to contain 2000 paying swimmers at the height of the season (including the paddling pool and the paved surrounds). But all still resolutely unheated. The water's been 4°C this past week, apparently, although that hasn't curtailed the lido's winter opening. I arrived just too late for admission on Saturday to find the entrance firmly shuttered off, almost as if the entire facility had been mothballed. But no, there were still flushed swimmers emerging from the changing rooms after a rapid shower and rubdown, and returning to the car park. Sooner them than me. But hurrah for the all-year, all-weather, open-to-all lido.
by Overground: Gospel Oak   by bus: C11


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