A damp mist seemed to envelop long-since discarded gravestones in the old part of Highgate Cemetery on a warm but dismal Jul afternoon. Birds were strangely silent and no animals stirred in the undergrowth; even the voices of the small group of human beings present appearing softer than normal, as if subdued by some undefined presence which seemed aware of their every movement. This ’hushed silence’ might have triggered by the imaginations of those present who were overcome by the majestic melancholy of their surroundings, but subdued they were as they moved in order along deserted pathways trying to keep pace with a much louder human voice that seemed inclined on guiding the group around the graves and silent tombs.
It was July 9th, 2005 at 4pm; the venue, an Official Tour of London’s Highgate Cemetery. Not a particularly irregular Tour from the norm, perhaps, but maybe one almost unique in that one of the invited participants was David Farrant, a man who had been virtually banned from Highgate Cemetery back in 1973 following an investigation he conducted there into reports about a ’vampire-like’ figure that had been reported inside the cemetery. This was reputedly a tall dark-draped figure with hypnotic red eyes that confronted unsuspecting people wandering around the cemetery by day (when it was fully open to the public) and which had also been seen through the locked gates by night. The fact that the figure was reported as having ’hypnotic red eyes’ probably explained a widely circulated story that it could, in fact, be a ’vampire’.
Sightings of this apparition were numerous and it was even said to have ’attacked’ two people in Swain’s Lane outside the cemetery by pushing them to the ground ’with tremendous force’ before suddenly disappearing into the surrounding darkness. One of these ’attacks’ had been upon a young nurse back in 1970 who claimed that she had been thus ’attacked’ by a tall dark figure that had thrown her powerfully to the ground causing abrasions to her knees and elbows. Luckily, at this moment, a car came along and the figure disappeared in the glare of the headlights. Seeing that she was badly shaken, the driver took her to Highgate Police Station who immediately made a thorough search of the area. They found nothing although interestingly, at the place the figure had appeared, Swains Lane was by 15-foot high walls.
Intrigued by all these accounts, I had entered Highgate Cemetery one night with others (including a psychic medium) with the intention of trying to witness the phenomenon but, unfortunately, this vigil was interpreted by the police and I ended up in Clerkenwell Magistrates’ Court where police alleged that I was ’vampire hunting’. I was acquitted of this charge (the name of the Magistrate was Mr. Christoper Lea) but the publicity which the case attracted caused interest in Highgate Cemetery to escalate, which in turn, led to a marked increase in vandalism there and gave myself an unwanted reputation as being a ’vampire hunter’.
But interest in the Highgate case had continued to spread over the years until in 1997, I founded the Highgate Vampire Society which by 2000 had acquired several hundred members. Unfortunately, in 2000 the Highgate Vampire Society had to be temporarily suspended due to pressure of work but it had been re-launched in July; hence my belated return (some might say ’unwelcome’ return) to Highgate Cemetery…
The guide was informative from a historical point of view, but she was very careful to avoid the furore that had enveloped Highgate Cemetery in the early 1970’s; indeed, one which by its intensity was to transform the cemetery’s standing and lead ultimately to the formation of The Friends of Highgate Cemetery and the development of Guided Tours.
Not that anybody seemed willing to raise the matter of the cemetery’s past connection with the occult or ’vampires’; perhaps her leading approach in discussing only ’historical deaths’ and architecture conveying not only that such subjects were taboo, but they were simply not open to debate.
And yet northing could disguise the almost preternatural aura that the cemetery still chose to exude. It was there in the air, it was present in the physical architecture and it certainly permeated the dismal vaults that were contained almost magically in the Circle of Lebanon. It was in one of these, that one small group of ’vampire hunters’ had claimed to have discovered the Highgate vampire asleep in its coffin in 1970 with horrifically glazed eyes, its mouth still glazed with fresh blood!
Their so-called leader was about to ’stake it’ but then he apparently became squeamish (or so he said) and decided instead to have the vault bricked up using garlic impregnated cement. The vault was indeed bricked up at the time, but this was in fact done entirely at the instigation of the cemetery superintendent who had a number of vaults bricked up in the cemetery to deter continuing vandalism. As to allegations of ’vampirism’, this same person stated to a BBC television crew at the time that he thought the people making such allegations were all ’nutcases’ and that if he had his way, he’d like to lock them up for the night in one of the vaults to see if they could really find a ’vampire’!
But so much for fiction. Highgate Cemetery has indeed changed from the days when it used to be a ’feeding ground’ for ’weirdo’s’ and the worst kind of vandalism. It is almost tranquil now. A place that could almost be described as having been given a ’new lease of life’. Thanks to people like The Friends of Highgate Cemetery.
David Farrant, President, The Highgate Vampire Society © 2005NB: This article may freely be reproduced providing that it is credited to David Farrant and The Highgate Vampire Society