It's Walkabout Wednesday, and my buddy Julie Cohen asked if she could take us on a field trip. Silly me forgot to ask Julie *where* we were going on this field trip, so she's taking us to a graveyard...
Hello and thank you for having me back in the Playground!
One of the greatest things about being a writer is being able to research anything you want and put it into a book. I decided to set my latest book, NINA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF GLOOM (out this week!) in the North London area of Highgate, just so that I could make a key scene happen in Highgate Cemetery.
Highgate Cemetery is, as far as I’m aware, the best cemetery in the world. And I’m a bit of a cemetery fan, I must admit. It’s a Victorian temple to death, completely over the top and Gothic and wonderfully creepily beautiful. It’s actually two cemeteries; the eastern side is newer and open to the public to stroll about and holds such notable corpses as Karl Marx and George Eliot. The western side is wilder and darker, fallen into picturesque decay, and only open to visitors at certain times and by guided tour.
It’s an important habitat for London wildlife, both plant and animal, and it feels like an alternative universe. The minute you step into the cemetery, by climbing a stair up into a row of gravestones, you can forget you’re in one of the world’s greatest cities; in fact you can forget you’re in a city at all. It is hushed, and green, and special.
It even has its own vampire legend, an undead creature who prowled the night in the 1970s preying on unwary Highgate residents and, er...foxes.
Here’s an excerpt from NINA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF GLOOM, about the western side of the cemetery. Nina Jones is taken there at dusk by her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Viktor, and they walk along tomb-lined paths to the incredible Circle of Lebanon, a circular construction of mausoleums with a giant Lebanese cedar growing from the centre of their ceiling.
The stone stairs in the curved wall climb upwards, and are pitched in such a way that I can’t see to the top of them. “Are we the only people in this place?”
“The only living people, yes.” He smiles at my hesitation and that’s enough to get me moving up the stairs. At the top, I gasp.
Trees loom over the gravel path, forming a canopy. And between them, behind them, around them, through them, a city of graves.
“Holy crow.” I wander forward. You can’t hear the city, only a rustle of trees and our feet on the gravel. The gravestones crowd together, some spiky like jagged teeth, some elaborately carved, piled on top of each other as if jostling for position. In the deepening shadows I see a stone angel, a shrouded pillar, a weeping woman without a hand.
“This way,” says Viktor, leading me up the path. Leaves crunch and whisper. They are orange and brown, and the foliage around us a muted curtain of colour in the fading light. Against this, the graves are subtler hues of grey and pink and brown stone, greened over by lichen and moss.
“It’s beautiful,” I murmur. A slow riot of life and decay. I try to read the inscriptions but it’s difficult in the shadowy light; anyone could lie here, deep beneath, sleeping.
It’s definitely getting darker as we ascend, but my eyes adjust to it and so I can see adequately, within the tunnel of trees at least. It feels as if the cemetery stretches in a labyrinth for miles around us.
“Last week I was spending most of my time in an alley behind a dry cleaners,” Viktor tells me. “This place has more perks, if you don’t mind it being a little spooky. Speaking of which, here we are.”
“Oh, wow.” Suddenly, out of a wall of trees, there’s a big stone gateway, flanked by improbably elaborate pillars. “It looks like a set for an Indiana Jones film.” I point through it, to an upward-sloping stone corridor. No roof, just doors either side, their entrances pitch black. “You can so imagine a big ball rolling down through there to crush us both.”
“Want to take a chance?”
This is creepy. This is really creepy. I don’t need to be told that these are crypts. There are skeletons lying behind these doors. Skeletons, rotting grave clothes, and lots and lots of spiders. Our footsteps echo slightly and the air has grown distinctly colder.
“Are you scared?” Viktor asks me. The fingers of his free hand brush my arm.
The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. My heart is pounding. Every shadow seems poised to leap out at us.
“I’m not scared.”
What’s the most magical place you’ve ever visited? I’ll give a signed copy of NINA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF GLOOM to a commenter.
Julie’s website: www.julie-cohen.com
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