Locals are mourning the loss of a beloved tree which has stood at the centre of Highgate Cemetery for nearly 200 years.
The majestic Cedar of Lebanon has been in the middle of the site’s west side since its inception in the 1830s, bearing witness to hundreds of burials in that time.
Despite best efforts to keep it alive, the mighty cedar has been condemned by tree surgeons, amid fears it could collapse.
The decision was eventually made to cut it down, in what one trustee compared to the feeling of losing a “much-loved relative”.
Dr Ian Dungavell, chief executive of the Friends of Highgate Trust, told the Standard: “It was a bit like switching off the life system on a much-loved relative. This tree has seen so much.”
Staff at the cemetery had started to notice fungus on the tree, which has survived a lightning strike and deep winters throughout its life.
Experts were called in, who said that large sections were beyond saving.
Dr Dungavell said they “did not want to believe” the report but took the decision to trust the experts.
One tree surgeon involved in cutting the Cedar down even visited the site to bid farewell to the tree before work commenced to remove it.
Meanwhile, volunteers were invited to visit and to witness it in its final days before it was felled.
“For any tree it’s upsetting if its been around for that period of time,” said Dr Dungavell, referencing the other longstanding trees at the site.
“It’s hard not to anthropomorphise them, to think, ‘what have they seen?'”
Sheldon Goodman, a tour guide and curator of the Cemetery Club website, also expressed his sadness at the situation.
“I’m a cemetery lover so the precedence this tree had is amplified in me, but knowing it’s fate, although unavoidable and necessary, doesn’t dispel that a little bit of London’s history is dying with it. You watch from the sidelines, powerless to do anything,” he told the Standard.
“Seeing the circle without the Lebanon would be like seeing Pisa without the tower, or Sydney without the bridge. The architecture becomes a nonsense without it.”
Mr Goodman said the Cedar deserved recognition as a famous tree of London, as he felt it was somewhat a “hidden secret”.
“It’s a guardian that has fallen on its sword and it’s silently watched over the fortunes of the cemetery for so many years; to see it succumb to disease and a climate it hadn’t really evolved for is such a shame,” he said.
The Cedar of Lebanon is based above the Lebanon Catacombs, which contain a number of burials in lead-lined coffins.
It is described as being like a “giant bonsai”, due to its unique placement and was part of the site when the land was part of Ashurst House, which was sold in 1830.
Dr Dungavell said a collapse would have been “horrific”, if branches had fell and smashed into them.
As well as being a constant presence in the cemetery and viewed by thousands of visitors in person, the tree has also been seen on screen.
Most recently it featured in the film Hampstead, with Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson sharing a picnic underneath its towering branches.
The west side of the cemetery is the site of hundreds of burials, including the private tomb of late music star George Michael.
Each side of the cemetery attracts thousands of visitors each year, with large numbers visiting the east side to see the final resting place of philosopher Karl Marx.
As part of its major restoration project , Brompton Cemetery held a short series of free walks around the cemetery last month to discuss future plans. I joined one which was led by Nigel Thorne, Project Manager and Halima Khanom, Partnership and Community Engagement Officer for the Royal Parks..
The weather had been dull and overcast all day but, as we gathered at the South entrance project office, blue sky suddenly burst through the clouds and it became a lovely golden summer evening bathing the chapel and monuments in a soft glow. A relief really as we were out in the open throughout. Nigel was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable and began by revealing that Brompton had received an impressive grant of £6.2 of which £4.2 had come from the Heritage Lottery Fund (your £1 lottery ticket does something useful after all even if it doesn’t make you a millionaire) and the rest had come from Parks for People.
He added that he saw cemeteries as another form of public space which I’d not previously considered and an aspect that maybe isn’t emphasised enough. Brompton is already well used as a cut through with joggers much in evidence and people on the edge of the group huddled in so as not to be entangled with cyclists.
This was to be updated. Apparently it hadn’t existed when Brompton had opened and had been just been land owned by British Gas. The ex -assistant cemetery manager’s accommodation and the Friends base was now the Project Office.
Almost opposite was a bijou sized building which had been, of all things, a police box dating from when the Royal Parks had had their own police force. It was now hiding behind a temporary fence.
Nigel stopped by the Robert Coombes monument. This is dedicated to a champion sculler and the upturned boat on top of it with his waterman’s coat draped across it had once had a set of oars attached. These were now long gone and so, sadly, were the heads of the four statues, one at each corner. Cemetery vandals always seem to go for the heads of statues.
Nigel revealed that this monument was to be restored at a cost of around £40k. However, although the HLF grant included £140k for monument restoration, a substantial legacy would instead pay for Mr Coombes. We noticed that there was a tabletop grave very near to Coombes which was being propped up by blocks of wood.
Chapel – mysteries and surprises:
Nigel almost shuddered as he related stories of the horrors of 1970’s restoration. ‘They would have been better off leaving it alone!’ he said with feeling. There is a gap between the inner and outer dome which is accessible but a tight squeeze apparently. A good opportunity I thought , to explore and record areas not normally accessible. It’s envisaged that the Chapel will be open more often once restoration is complete and visitors to a recent art exhibition were very pleased to have an additional opportunity to go inside.
There would be a disabled visitors’ ramp at the chapel entrance to increase access.
Nigel pointed up at the crumbling Bath Stone visible along the top of the East wing’s roof. ‘Very soft.’ he explained.
Two huge basements had been found under each of the East and West wings. The latter was originally the cemetery supervisor’s office. But there was a surprised in the West wing as there were no stairs making it inaccessible.
Another secret had been discovered when investigating the floor. It had always been assumed that it had been made from poured concrete but this was revealed to actually be lino. When that was taken up there was a lovely flagstone floor in a radial pattern – something to see when the chapel is reopened.
Nigel indicated where Brompton’s original owners had run out of money and the lonely cupola above a colonnade marked the spot.
The Western catacombs:
These were never used as catacombs but they form part of the boundary walls facing onto the rail and tube line. A gated and blocked entrance at either end still remains with a far grander one in the centre. Originally it had a promenade over the top on which visitors could walk and admire the fields and canal on the other side but these are obviously long gone. Parts of the promenade still remain but I wouldn’t fancy walking on it now. Some of the wall is now supported by buttresses and one end of the catacombs is now in the new Horticultural team’s area.
When opened the catacombs were found to full of spoil which took a year to dig out. This had to be done as it was pushing out the wall that faced onto the railway line.
Improved paths and access
Nigel told us that all of Brompton’s current paths are made of tarmac. This leads to a uniformity of paths that can be confusing for a visually impaired visitor. As a result, one blind woman had no idea where she was in Brompton. It was now hoped to have a hierarchy of paths to counteract this.
We paused by a rampant area of long grass and wildflowers (or weeds depending on your point of view). Nigel commented that the area needed a tidy up and that grave owners in the area had been given Brompton’s policy and their obligations at the time of burial – no vertical tombstones or planting.
A perennial problem was the planting of small trees and shrubs on graves which are now huge. According to Nigel they reduce light and space as well as damaging and obscuring memorials and monuments. He indicated a somewhat spindly rose bush which looked very untended.
A huge laurel plant had had its lower branches lopped but regrowth had already started. There was a monument just underneath it which we could hardly see. I found others examples such as the Mary King grave by the chapel.
There’s a debate between those who like cemetery to look messy to encourage wildlife and those who don’t. I personally like wild areas to encourage this as Brompton is known for its large crow population and I’ve disturbed the odd sunbathing fox. The large bramble stands, in Nigel’s opinion, were of benefit only to the foxes as hiding places.
Garden of Remembrance:
The tall hedges surrounding it are to be reduced in size as they encourage anti-social behaviour. Visitors can buy a 1m memorial tablet under which up to 4 urns can be buried.
Visitors café and centre:
Work on the visitors centre and café is well on schedule – I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the speed at which they are being built. Nigel added that the café was intended to be a social enterprise and not another outpost of one of the chains. It would be staffed by local people and use local produce (blackberry jam anyone?). The visitors centre opposite had all sorts of exciting plans such as allowing visitors access to Brompton’s records of the 200k people buried within it.
A fascinating walk – our thanks to Nigel and Halima – which covered not only Brompton’s ambitious restoration plans but also some of the problems of cemetery maintenance and restoration.
It’s a two for one offer on symbols this month folks as I feature two ancient symbols which are often combined together. They both predate Christianity and were then adopted by the newly emerging faith. This was a time when Christians only communicated with fellow believers via a secret language of symbols and codes known only to each other. Discovery would have meant death and so the codes were designed to keep outsiders away.
These symbols are the Alpha and Omega and the Chi-Rho. They’re not all that common in cemeteries but I found these two examples in Brompton Cemetery, London. They stood out because of their simplicity and classicism.
The Alpha and Omega
This fine example which also features the Chi-Rho is on the substantial Platt memorial in Brompton Cemetery. I’ll write about the Chi-Rho later. Thomas Platt was the first to be buried here in 1899 followed by his wife, Annie, who outlived him and died in 1925. Two of their daughters are also buried and commemorated here – one died in 1935 and the other, also called Annie, in 1936. I haven’t been able to find out much about him or the family but this is a substantial memorial with space for more incumbents. It’s made of pink granite in the classical style with a large cross on top and acroteria on each of the corners on the pedestal under the Alpha and Omega, Chi-Rho and cross.
The Alpha and Omega are very similar in a way to an ouroboros as they both express eternity. They are formed from the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and represent God. He is the first – the alpha – as there is no God before him and the last – the Omega – as there is no God after him. The symbols also appear in several Bible verses including Revelation verses 1.8:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,theBeginning andtheEnd,”says the Lord,“who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” King James version
They also appear in Revelation verses 21.6 and verses 22.13 as well as Isiah verses 44.6.
Both the Jewish and Islamic faiths use the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe the name of their God.
The Alpha and Omega have been represented by an eagle and an owl. There has also been a suggestion that the Omega is an ancient representation of the Goddess Ishtar’s headdress and that the Alpha was derived from the ox horn headdress worn by male deities and kings but I would like to see more evidence of this. However it’s an interesting theory on how these symbols might have come into being.
Interestingly, the two motifs are known as a merism. This is a figure of speech that articulates the beginning of something and the ending of something with the implication that it also refers to all things in between. For example, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer etc.
However, Douglas Fielder in ‘Stories in Stone’ has suggested the Alpha and Omega may be the representation of the beginning and end of a life and that would certainly fit in with their use within cemeteries. J C Cooper’s definition is that they denote the beginning and end of all things.
This is a striking example from Brompton Cemetery London and is on the grave of Matthew Boyd Bredon. He was an Irishman who served in the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers and rose through the ranks. He became a Lieutenant in 1875 and a Captain in 1878 and became a Major. The epitaph states that he died in Swatow, or Shantou is it was originally known, in China in 1900. This was the time of the Boxer Rebellion in which treaty ports were imposed on China by the British and other foreign powers who wanted to open up trade. However, these ports weren’t strictly ports and instead were separate communities in which foreigners lived according to their own customs, traditions and rules of law. Bredon was also the Deputy Commissioner of Customs in China at the time of his death. In 1900 a brass eagle was presented to his local church, St Saviours in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland in his memory.
The Chi-Rho was created by using the first two capital letters from the Greek word for Christ:
These are Chi and Rho and this is the earliest form of christogram. The definition of a christogram is, according to Wikipedia,
‘ a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ and is a traditionally used as a religious symbol within the Christian church.’
The combination of the letters have led to claims that the Chi Rho symbolises the status of Jesus as the risen Christ as the vertical stroke of the Rho intersects the centre of the Chi. Thus it could be seen as a symbol of resurrection when used in cemeteries.
However, it wasn’t originally a religious symbol and was, instead, used to mark an especially valuable or relevant passage in a page. When used like this it was known as a Chresten which meant ‘good.’ It also appeared on ancient Egyptian coins.
The Roman Emperor, Constantine, (306-337) used the Chi Rho as part of a military standard known as a Labarum. He had a dream in which he felt that military success would follow if he put a heavenly and divine symbol on his soldiers shields to protect them
From 350 onwards The Chi Rho began to appear on Christian sarcophagi and frescoes and has been found in the celebrated Roman catacombs. It came to Britain via the Roman invasion and can be seen on a mosaic at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent, UK.
Nowadays it has been adopted as a popular tattoo symbol.
I did try and discover the significance of these two symbols to these two men who both died relatively young but a search through coats of arms and regimental cap badges in the case of Bredon and other sites with Platt yielded no new information. But they have left us with impressive examples of these early and powerful symbols.