A walk to and around Highgate Cemetery, London

Highgate Cemetery, one of my UK bucket list items, might appear a strange destination for a family day out but we loved it. We spent an afternoon visiting the cemetery after a morning walk across Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath

We had a couple of hours spare before our cemetery tour so I’d planned a walking route from Hampstead Heath underground station to Highgate Cemetery.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hampstead Heath. My prior knowledge mostly came from lurid tabloid headlines about the after dark activities of gay men on the western heath. The daytime reality was a tranquil dog walking and running area, albeit one that was in need of a good dose of rain.

Hampstead Heath boating pond
Hampstead Heath boating pond

Our route took us up to the viewpoint on Parliament Hill. From here the Shard, Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral and BT Tower are all easy to see. Some of the other buildings shown on the orientation map were harder; I couldn’t see the London Eye however much I looked.

View from Primrose Hill, London
View from Parliament Hill, London

Highgate is also famous for its outdoor bathing ponds. These were much busier than I expected on a gloomy weekday. I’m not a water lover so couldn’t imagine wanting to swim in them, surrounded by ducks and pond debris. However plenty of swimmers looked like they were enjoying it, particularly the divers jumping off the board in the men’s bathing pond.

Before heading to the cemetery we popped into the Village Deli in Highgate village for a takeaway lunch. Despite the expensive sounding name, and location, our picnic lunch was incredible value and very tasty, highly recommended. There’s a square opposite to sit and eat your lunch in.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate was one of seven new private London cemeteries, constructed in the Victorian era, to accommodate the increasing number of burials. Prior to this, burials were in local churchyards but these were literally overflowing due to the doubling of London’s population.

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

Many of London’s wealthiest were laid to rest in Highgate. However, the cemetery fell into decline after the second World War. Decaying and vandalised it was taken over in 1975 by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who work to restore and preserve the area.

We visited West Highgate on a guided tour before crossing Swain’s Lane to look around the East Cemetery independently.

West Highgate Cemetery

Forget your local graveyard. Imagine instead a jumbled area of crowded gravestones and gothic and Egyptian influenced monuments, some covered with ‘Dangerous’ tape. Nature is in charge; tree roots climb over gravestones, ivy and bramble tendrils encircle the monuments. This is West Highgate cemetery. Some visitors call it romantic, others creepy; I guess I’m somewhere in between.

Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery
Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery

We started our tour in the open space in front of The Colonnade; big enough, our guide explained, so that the horse drawn carriages delivering coffins could turn around.  From here we followed the path up through the graveyard to the Egyptian Avenue, flanked by columns and obelisks.

There are sixteen family vaults on either side of the avenue; each with room for twelve coffins. The vaults are also home to a large spider, the rare orb weaver. Discovered during a bat survey the London Wildlife Trust estimates the vaults could contain a hundred of these adult cave spiders. I’m not sure whether the bodies or the spiders unsettle me more!

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

The Egyptian Avenue leads out into the Circle of Lebabon; a huge 300 year old cedar tree surrounded by a circle of tombs. The Victorians certainly knew how to celebrate their interred relations, very different to today’s attitude to death.

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

Our eyes slowly accustomed to the dark inside our next stop, the above ground Terrace Catacombs. It takes a moment longer to realise that every recess on either side of the passageway houses a coffin. Room for 825 people in total! We heard how coffins were once prone to exploding due to a build up of gases inside them. The ingenious solution was to drill a small hole into the coffin, insert a pipe and burn the gases off.

Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery
Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery

Outside the catacombs stands the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This was built for his daughter Ada who died she was just eight years old. Although we couldn’t go inside our guide showed us photographs of its rich interior. The mausoleum cost £5000 to build in 1878; in today’s money that’s around £3 million!

Most residents of West Highgate cemetery may not be household names today but many were famous in their day. I loved hearing the stories of some of these. Our guide recounted the life of Tom Sayers, a bare knuckle fighter whose stone dog adorns his grave. And that of Jim Selby, a carriage driver who raced from London to Brighton and back in less than eight hours.

Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery
Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery

The grave of George Wombwell reflects his livelihood, a travelling menagerist. His tomb lies under a statue of his lion, Nero. George famously advertised a dead elephant as one of his exhibits in order to attract more visitors than a competitor, who only had a live elephant. Different times indeed.

One of the more recent graves is for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was poisoned by polonium radiation. His grave is buried 12 foot deep and lined with lead to protect from visitors from accidental radioactive exposure.

Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London
Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London

Our guide also explained the symbolism used by the Victorians. I’ve never given it any thought before but urns, clasped hands and broken pillars all have specific meanings. For example, a broken column indicates a life cut off in its prime. I’d always assumed it was due to vandalism!

Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery
Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery

We finished our tour with a visit to the dissenters graveyard. This is an area of two acres set aside for non-Anglicans; not as extensive as the fifteen acres for Anglicans.

I’d hoped we might see some of the wildlife that Highgate is famous for. There were plenty of butterflies and a cheeky robin but no fox cubs lounging on gravestones that I’ve seen in some photographs. Fortunately we didn’t see the vampires or ghosts that Highgate is also known for!

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

East Highgate cemetery

East Highgate Cemetery is a tidier, more manicured resting place on the opposite side of Swain’s Lane. There’s less woodland and the graves are arranged in a more formal layout.

The entry booth provides maps with the graves of more notable residents marked; there are plenty of familiar names. There are all walks of life here; from historians, architects, zoologists and cabaret stars to political activists. Even the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.

Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery
Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery

Over in West Highgate most of the gravestones we saw were of traditional design. Whereas in East Highgate Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone has the word DEAD cut out of the granite, and Malcolm McLaren has another statement headstone. Douglas Adams has a simple grey headstone but fans have adorned it with a pot full of pencils.

However the most famous grave belongs to that of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Although originally buried in another part of the cemetery he was moved in the 1950s after the Communist Party funded a new memorial.

We didn’t stay long in East Highgate as we had a train to catch. Fortunately we left early as I took the roundabout route back to the underground station. Yes, we went the wrong way!

If you’re looking for other unusual things to do in and about London please pop over to my 10 quirky things to do in an hour in London post.

More info

  • You’ll need to book in weekday tours advance in the West Cemetery on the Highgate Cemetery website. Alternatively turn up early on a weekend and go on the next available tour. You can visit the East Cemetery without a tour, an entrance fee is payable.
Share this:

Exploring the northern Gower Peninsula, Swansea

Think of the Gower peninsula and you probably imagine holidaymakers enjoying its golden sandy beaches. But whilst the area is home to some of the most celebrated beaches in Wales, spare a thought for its quiet northern neighbour. On a recent trip we left the busier southern beaches behind and spent a day discovering just how different the northern Gower is.

Weobley Castle

We started with a visit to Weobley Castle, or more accurately, the remains of a 14th Century fortified manor house. It’s a low key attraction with most of the inside area open to the elements. One room has been restored and this houses panels detailing the history of the area and the de la Bere family who lived here.

Weobley Castle
Weobley Castle

But it’s the positioning of Weobley Castle that’s most impressive. Standing high above the coastline a window provides a perfectly framed view of the salt marshes and mud flats that typify the north Gower coastline. Admittedly not to everyone’s taste but it’s my kind of place. The salt marsh is grazed by ponies and sheep whose diet of samphire, sorrel and sea lavender contribute to its unique flavour. If you fancy trying the resulting salt marsh lamb you can often buy it from the farmhouse where you pay your castle entrance fee.

View from Weobley Castle over Llanrhidian salt marshes
View from Weobley Castle over Llanrhidian salt marshes

Llanrhidian marsh is a great bird watching spot, particularly during the winter months when it’s home to a large population of waders and wildfowl. We asked permission at the farmhouse and walked down to see what bird life we could spot. Despite a lack of binoculars we saw a couple of little egrets wading in one of the muddy channels and a fledgling nuthatch hopping along the ground. However we didn’t walk far as the ponies were having fun cantering around the marsh and we decided it best to watch them from afar.

Whiteford beach

It’s a ten minute drive from Weobley Castle to the small village of Llandmadoc. After a refreshment break in the community shop and a spot of hanging around in the car waiting for the rain to clear we headed out towards Whiteford Sands. This is the most northerly beach on the Gower peninsula and, thanks to the lack of a car park, one of the least visited.

After a 20 minute walk we reached the beach and were greeted with a sign warning visitors not to pick up unusual items. The area was used as a firing range in World War II and unexploded shells still turn up occasionally.

Tide’s out at Whiteford Sands
Tide’s out at Whiteford Sands

Whiteford beach stretches for about two miles, and is backed by sand dunes and trees. We visited at low tide and the waters were too far out for a paddle. Instead we walked along the tideline checking what treasures high tide had bought. We found several sea potatoes, whelk egg cases and lots of crab legs. There were a couple of small jellyfish, but nothing like the huge barrel jellyfish we’d seen on the southern beaches.

As we walked we heard our first, and only, cuckoo of the year. It was somewhere in the trees but despite it reminding us of its presence every few minutes we couldn’t spot it.

Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula

Given the earlier rain it wasn’t surprising we were the only ones on the beach. This was also fortunate as I subsequently discovered that Whiteford Sands is a well known naturist beach. I can only imagine how embarrassed the teens would have been if we’d come across some au naturel visitors.

Whiteford beach, Gower peninsula
Whiteford beach, Gower peninsula

Later a couple of quad bikes passed us and we realised the beach wasn’t entirely empty. Far out we could see a couple of groups of people who I guess were harvesting cockles or mussels. A backbreaking job perhaps better left to the oystercatchers!

Whiteford lighthouse

At the far end of Whiteford beach there’s a cast iron lighthouse which was built in 1865. Over 30 shipwrecks have been recorded in this area, including 16 ships sailing out of Llanelli which were wrecked in just one night.

Whiteford Lighthouse, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Lighthouse, Gower Peninsula

The lighthouse is accessible on foot at low tide, providing the ultimate goal for my beach walk. Although I underestimated just how far out it was. The rest of the family sensibly decided to sit it out on the beach whilst I seemingly walked several miles out to it (OK, perhaps half a mile).

Whiteford Burrows Nature Reserve

Leaving the lighthouse behind we walked past the sand dunes that make up Whiteford Burrows. The path gradually turned from sand to mud as we moved inland. Yellow irises flanked our route, indicative of the marsh that lay just off our route.

Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula
Whiteford Sands, Gower Peninsula

We arrived at a path junction and I was immediately drawn to the sea wall that heads out across the marsh. The wall was breached in 2014, resulting in sea water flowing into the freshwater marsh. Rather than repair it the National Trust have left nature to take its own course. This has resulted in the area previously behind the sea wall turning into salt marsh. Good news for wildlife although not so good if you wanted to take the footpath along the sea wall!

Sea wall across the marsh, Whiteford
Sea wall across the marsh, Whiteford

A little later we stopped in a bird hide overlooking the marsh. Our lack of binoculars once again put paid to any serious bird spotting so we didn’t linger. There was also the small matter of reaching Cwm Ivy cafe before closing time.

Whiteford nature reserve, Gower
Whiteford nature reserve, Gower

Sitting in the cafe a short time later we reflected on our northern Gower day out.  The area has a stunning coastline, nature reserves and historical attractions. Yet we‘d seen less than 30 other visitors all day; it’s definitely the place to visit if you’re looking for a quiet day out (particularly in the rain)!

Exploring the Gower Peninsula was one of my UK bucket list challenges. As well as the above day out you might also like to read about the fun we had tackling the Worm’s Head at Rhossili.

More info:

  • Weobley Castle is open daily between 1 April and 31 October. It’s free for Cadw members, alternatively pay in the farmhouse before entering.
Share this:

Tackling the Worm’s Head, Rhossili beach, Gower Peninsula

The three miles of golden sand at Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula regularly features in top ten lists of best beaches. This year alone it has been voted the number one beach in Wales, third best in the UK and 25th in Europe. I can see why. But, and I will whisper this, perfect sandy beaches just don’t do it for me. I don’t swim, sunbathe or surf. I need something else to hold my attention.

Rhossili beach
Rhossili beach

So it’s fortunate that, at the southern end of the beach, there’s a fabulous tidal island that’s right up my street. Let me introduce the rockpools, cliffs and wildlife of Worm’s Head.

But, first, a word about the name. The Vikings named the promontory ‘wurm’ which translates to dragon. Not worm. I guess that with a little imagination the green summits do resemble a serpent’s back.

Crossing the causeway

The large National Trust car park for Rhossili beach is about 20 minutes walk from Worm’s Head causeway. From the car park it’s a surfaced track almost as far as the volunteer run coastwatch station.

Tide time warning for the crossing to Worm’s Head
Tide time warning for the crossing to Worm’s Head

From the headland there’s a short scrambly section to get down onto the causeway which links to the island. Worm’s Head is accessible for 2.5 hours before and after low tide; there’s a large notice advising the safe crossing times so there’s no excuse for strandings. If you’re tempted to race the tide the small coastwatch station has a tally notice in the window advising of the number of rescues. Don’t add to the numbers!

Crossing the causeway takes about 20 minutes assuming you’re not distracted by the rock pools. We delayed our rock pooling until the return journey so soon reached Inner Head, the first section of Worm’s Head. The entire island is about a mile long; Inner Head is joined to Outer Head, by Low Neck. I guess the Vikings had exhausted their imagination after naming the island.

View from causeway to Worm’s Head
View from causeway to Worm’s Head

Inner Head

We hadn’t been organised enough to make a picnic but fortunately we’d bought some sandwiches in Rhossili. The sandwiches were surprisingly good although I think a combination of sea air, fabulous views and rumbling tummies contributed to our enjoyment. We ate our sandwiches, enjoying the view, and discovered that the people staying next to us in the campsite were sitting only a few steps away. Great minds.

View across Worm’s Head, near Rhossili
View across Worm’s Head, near Rhossili

After lunch we faced the first climb of the day to the summit of Inner Head. Although quite a steep hill it was relatively short and once over the top we were treated to a panoramic view of the serpent in all its glory.

As we dropped down to Low Neck we took a slight detour to peer over the cliffs at the grey seals below. A couple were swimming lazily in the sea, another huge one was laying on the rocks, seemingly oblivious to the humans above them taking photographs.

Crossing the jagged rocks on Worm’s Head
Crossing the jagged rocks on Worm’s Head

Low neck

The most exciting part of the route came next, clambering across the jagged teeth of Low Neck. OK they were only rocks. But surprisingly fierce ones; I still have one of the bruises! There are a few hand on rock moments and god forbid if you’re  trying to cross in Crocs (as I saw one lady wearing). The big positive is, in dry conditions at least, the rocks are very grippy. This  section can take some time to negotiate so do bear this in mind if the tide is turning.

My geology knowledge is basic but even I could appreciate the different strata and faults in the rocks. However my eyes glaze over at the mention of wave cut platforms, carboniferous limestone and calcite veins; suffice to say they all feature on Worm’s Head.

Devil’s Bridge

Devil’s Bridge is the remains of a collapsed sea cave. One day it too will fall into the sea. Until then it’s one of the most photographed features on the island. The best photographs are obtained by scrambling down towards the sea, probably not for the faint hearted.

Devil’s bridge, Worm’s Head
Devil’s bridge, Worm’s Head

The crossing itself is straightforward and nowhere near as airy as I expected, but then again I didn’t attempt to look down. I might have changed my mind if I took a moment to peer over the edge.

A little further on we came across a cave window, perfectly framed for a photograph out to sea. If you’ve come this far with children be warned there’s a sheer drop off the cliff on the other side of the window!

Outer Head

At the bottom of Outer Head there’s a notice advising of nesting birds and asking visitors to keep to the marked path. We didn’t go any further as we’d left the teens at Devil’s Bridge and I had visions of them scaling cliffs or (more likely) arguing.

View to Outer Head, Worm’s Head near Rhossili
View to Outer Head, Worm’s Head near Rhossili

Instead we stopped and watched the seabirds for a while. Guillemots and razorbills whirling and diving around the cliffs. I looked in vain for puffins but to no avail.

We took an alternative return route, keeping low and circling around the hill, enjoying the waves of pink sea thrift that lined the path edge.

Back at Devil’s Bridge the kids were still on speaking terms and had been taking photographs of each other messing around on the bridge. I’m glad I wasn’t around to watch them do this. My parenting survival gene may have kicked in!

Rock pooling on the causeway

The second highlight of the day, after Low Neck, was rock pooling on our return journey.

I love rock pools. The ones on the Worm’s Head causeway were fascinating; I could easily have spent all of low tide mooching around them. They were teeming with creatures; anemones, hermit crabs, shrimps, dog whelks and seaweeds to name but a few. Some of the rocks were completely covered in mussels and barnacles making it impossible to avoid standing on them. And sometimes the weird and wonderful shapes of the rocks alone were enough to make me stand and stare.

Rock pooling on the Worm’s Head causeway
Rock pooling on the Worm’s Head causeway

Despite the tide being out I still managed to get wet feet. I can only blame the sun reflecting off the water for my decision to walk through a large pool. My trainers and socks got soaked through so it didn’t matter when I did it again a few minutes later. Fortunately it was a warm day and I managed to forget how wet my feet were before the family stopped laughing at me.

The final part of our journey took us back to Rhossili for a well deserved ice cream. And several water bottle refills at the NT shop. The day had turned out much warmer than we’d planned for!

More info

  • The National Trust owns the land around Rhossili and Worm’s Head. Car parking is free to NT members or £5 for the day for non-members. There are no facilities on Worm’s Head.
Share this:

Walking the Kennet and Avon canal path from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon

If the canal path from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon had its own theme tune it would consist of bicycle bells and whirring tyres; to say it’s a popular cycling route is an understatement. Indeed, if you’ve arrived here from my UK bucket list link you’re probably expecting to read about our cycle ride beside the canal. But, for various reasons, we ended up walking instead; read on to find out how we got on.

Bath to Bathwick

We joined the Kennet and Avon canal path immediately behind Bath railway station. Connecting Bristol to Reading, the canal opened in 1810 but fell into disuse and dereliction following the opening of the railway in 1841. Restored and fully reopened in 1990 it’s now a popular amenity for locals and visitors.

The first mile or so winds through the city; past locks, under bridges and opposite mansions with their honeyed stone and pristine gardens. Two hundred years ago the canal would have been busy carrying coal into Bath and stone out. Several features along the route hark back to those days, including the pumphouse chimney. This was built in an ornate style as the local wealthy residents didn’t want to look out on to an industrial structure!

Kennet and Avon canal, Bath
Kennet and Avon canal, Bath

At Darlington Wharf we came across a floating market. Narrow boat businesses were moored alongside the path offering, amongst others, a sweet shop, wooden crafts and clothing. A little further on we spotted a boat with a Polling Station sign; not sure if it really was or whether the sign had been relocated from elsewhere!

On a warm spring weekend the canal towpath was busy with dog walkers, weekend joggers and cyclists. Ah yes, the cyclists. I’m far from anti-cyclist but when they whoosh past at great speed or cycle in groups across the entire path it’s hard to have a positive view. Of course there were plenty of considerate people too but given that we rarely walked more than 100m without meeting cyclists it only took a few to spoil our enjoyment.

Tunnel near Bathwick, Kennet and Avon canal
Tunnel near Bathwick, Kennet and Avon canal

Bathampton

At Bathampton we couldn’t resist a stop at the Cafe on the Barge, a tiny café in a narrow boat. Primarily offering drinks and cakes, I highly recommend the carrot cake. We sat on the small open deck, completely forgetting we were on a boat until another craft came by and rocked the waters. There are seats on the canal towpath too as there’s not much room on the boat itself.

Walking on we enjoyed watching the variety of canal users. A mix of holiday barges, day rentals, homes and (further on) a defunct lifeboat chug up the canal and line the moorings. It’s easy to tell the difference. Those belonging to long term residents are often laden with bikes, wood, pot plants and Buddha statues. The hire boats were usually more pristine, with traditional decoration aside from the holiday company logos.

Claverton

We heard the swimmers and picnickers at Warleigh Weir, near Claverton, way before we saw them. This beauty spot on the river (not the canal) can be reached by a short walk downhill and across the railway line. I’ve no idea what it’s normally like but on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday the field beside the river was packed with people. Rather like Bournemouth beach on a sunny day.

Kennet and Avon canal near Claverton
Kennet and Avon canal near Claverton

Elsewhere in Claverton there’s a pumping station which was built to transport water from the River Avon to the canal. Fully restored it operates on selected dates (advertised on the canal noticeboards). It was closed during our walk but reviews suggest it’s worth a visit when it’s open.

Leaving Claverton behind we walked a rural stretch of the canal. The bees and butterflies were out  and everything looked a vibrant green in the spring sunshine. A little further on there’s a small wooded area beside the path where the garlic smell hits you before you see the white carpet of ramsons.

Dundas Aqueduct

Dundas Aqueduct
Dundas Aqueduct

One of the highlights of this walk are the two aqueducts built to carry the canal over the River Avon.

Completed in 1805, Dundas Aqueduct is 137 metres long with three arches. We walked across it and down the steps to the river bank for the best view. It’s a grand imposing structure but has had its problems over the years. It spent much of the 1960s and 1970s drained dry due to leaks and has now been lined with polythene and concrete. Materials not available to the original builders!

Kennet and Avon canal near Avoncliff
Kennet and Avon canal near Avoncliff

Avoncliff Aqueduct

It was another three miles to Avoncliff aqueduct. Three more miles of cyclists. Three very warm miles with empty water bottles. You can hardly blame us for another cafe stop. This time at the No 10 Tea Gardens, handily located alongside the aqueduct. I smiled inwardly as I watched a couple of teens revising for their GCSEs in the tea garden; well, their books were open but I think they were on a break.

View from Avoncliff Aqueduct
View from Avoncliff Aqueduct

Avoncliff Aqueduct was designed by John Rennie (who also designed Dundas Aqueduct). Not bad for a first attempt at an aqueduct, albeit the central span sagged soon after completion and had to be repaired several times. Where were the Romans when you need them?

I had a navigation ‘moment’ after leaving the tea room. Seriously, how can anyone get lost following a canal? Er, it’s quite easy if you end up on the road because you can’t find the canal path! (Hint, walk under the aqueduct). Navigation error aside the last couple of miles passed uneventfully. Still plenty of cyclists but this time along a broad track so plenty of room for all.

The very last section took us through Barton Farm Country Park. Not quite Bournemouth beach busy this time but it appeared very popular with family groups.

Bradford-on-Avon

We reached Bradford-on-Avon late afternoon. I’ve only driven through the town before so thought we’d do a spot of sightseeing before taking the train back to Bath. But our cafe studded walk meant we arrived later than planned. And everywhere appeared shut. And we were hot and tired. So after a celebratory ice cream we headed straight to the railway station. Next time…

Bradford-on-Avon
Bradford-on-Avon

If you’re looking for an alternative route in Bath (without cyclists) head over to my Bath Skyline walk report.

More info:

  • The route from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon is approximately 10 miles. For further details on the Kennet and Avon Canal pop over to the Canal & River Trust website.
Share this: