Highgate cemetery revamp to fell trees and open views across London

Plan inspired by 1839 painting chosen for reshaping of historic but overgrown burial ground

Hundreds of “spindly” trees at Highgate cemetery are set to be felled under a proposed revamp that aims to open the famous burial ground to views across London.

The first images have been released showing how the final resting place of Karl Marx, George Eliot and Michael Faraday might look in future.

On Thursday the landscape architects Gustafson Porter + Bowman were chosen to reshape the overgrown cemetery in a 25-year masterplan, as part of a competition announced last year.

Leaning obelisk in Highgate cemetery.
Leaning obelisk in Highgate cemetery. Photograph: Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust

The firm’s winning proposal drew inspiration from an 1839 watercolour of clear views across London when the cemetery was first opened. Its vision is to “frame and enhance some of the site’s historic vistas towards St Paul’s and central London”.

It added: “This will ensure that visitors enjoy a tranquil and peaceful experience with a mixture of shady glades and more open grassy meadows”

Ian Dungavell, the chief executive of the cemetery, said there were thousands of trees on the site including many that were diseased and poorly rooted.

He said: “Some tree removal will be necessary but that won’t affect the heritage trees and it will be impossible to do quickly – any removal will be carefully phased and involve replanting trees that are better able to cope with climate change.”

The cemetery had already been forced to remove 30 trees because of ash dieback and many other trees were damaging graves and monuments, Dungavell said.

He added: “Our approach is not to lose any mature trees to open up vistas. We have a lot of poorly formed ash trees which were allowed to grow up without any management and they often tend to be quite spindly and multi-stemmed. Trees have found their ways in between graves and in some cases destroying them. We also have ash dieback so this presents an opportunity but also an expensive problem to grapple with. ”

Dungavell conceded that many visitors were charmed by the profusion of trees and thick undergrowth at the cemetery, but he said it needed to be more actively managed.

He said: “Romantic decay is attractive but it is also destructive. If you don’t repair a building because you love decay then it will end up as a ruin and the same applies to the landscape here. Sometimes only the ivy is holding things together and we don’t want to lose that sense, but in other areas all you can see is an assortment of spindly trees.”

He also claimed fewer trees could open the way for more biodiversity. “The ecology will benefit from the greater variety of landscape and habitat,” he said.

Dungavell stressed that the proposed image of the future cemetery was just a possible option for how it could look. “That might be what happens in the long term, but these are just ideas and we haven’t been through the consultation process yet with local people, grave owners and Camden council – the key decision-maker here.”

In the competition Hopkins Architects was also chosen to restore buildings at the site and improve facilities for visitors and grave owners.


Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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