London's beautiful cemeteries

If you’re travelling around Europe and you’ve picked up a guidebook or two, it’s not unlikely that you’ll have heard about some of the strangely beautiful cemeteries that locals in many cities use as spaces of relaxation and meditation. Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, Salzburg’s Petersfriedhof and, of course, Paris’s Père Lachaise are all well known for their famous buried inhabitants and are popular with tourists and city-dwellers alike.

And London too has its great cemeteries. The best known is the great Highgate Cemetery, resting place of Karl Marx, George Eliot (author of Middlemarch) and numerous other statesmen, authors and intellectuals. But what few Londoners - and fewer tourists - realise is that Highgate was just one of seven burial grounds built within a few years of one another at the beginning of the 19th century to deal with the great increase in London’s population.

Highgate cemetery

The poor quality of the disposal of the dead, and the problem of disease associated with it, had been lamented since as far back as the 17th century, the great architect Christopher Wren being one of the major complainants. And as the population of London grew due to the Industrial Revolution, doubling from 1 to 2 million over the course of little more than a decade, the city planners became aware of the urgency of the situation. Gone were the days of small inner city “parish” burial grounds. The “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries of London were built to accommodate the growing demand for grave space in the suburbs. And each of them is a fascinating portal through time.

This macabre historical context is by-the-by. What is useful to know is that all of the seven graveyards are open to the public, and most of them have an organisation looking after them and providing information and guided walks to the public. Although some tourists may think it a slightly strange suggestion, a walk through the resting places of famous and lesser-known Britons is a wonderful, reflective way to spend an afternoon.

Tower Hamlets cemetery

The most popular is Highgate, and not just because of the fame of its guests. Highgate cemetery is a beautiful, verdant place with recognised value as a wildlife sanctuary. Surrounded by the well-heeled suburbs of Hampstead, you could do worse than enjoy a cream tea at a local cafe followed by a stroll around the environs. The cemetery is open every day from 10am until 5pm so you can take your time as you peruse the headstones.

Tower Hamlets in the east of the city is lesser known but just as fascinating. Opened in 1841, the large green space has been closed for new burials for some years. Its appeal endures because of the local colour it provides of Victorian cockney life, with pub owners, flower sellers, thieves and soldiers lying side by side in the many ranks.

West Norwood cemetery

West Norwood Cemetery’s clients were a little more well-to-do. Sir Henry Tate, the sugar baron who founded the famous gallery which bears his name, is buried in a famous pink mausoleum, and many other wealthy families of trade and commerce are to be found nearby. The cemetery’s stunning gothic revival architecture has caused many to rank it as one of the great burial grounds of Europe.

And though the article may end here, the list of cemeteries does not. Brompton, Abney Park, Nunhead and Kensal Green all have their own delights to offer. It may seem like a slightly offbeat way to see the the city, but taking a look at these great historic monuments allow you to join in with locals as you all look back on London's past and appreciate the tranquility found there.

Highgate Cemetery, Swain's Ln, Highgate, London N6 6PJ. Open daily from 10am-5pm. Nearest tube: Archway

Tower Hamlets Cemetery, Southern Grove, London E3 4PX. Open 24 hours a day. Nearest tube: Mile End or Bow Road

West Norwood Cemetery, Norwood Rd, West Norwood, London SE27 9JU. Open 8am-4pm weekdays, 10am-4pm weekends. Nearest station: West Norwood