I WAS IN LONDON ALONE, for just 24 hours. A stopover between Barcelona and Edinburgh. What to do? It was a winter Saturday.
I resolved to do three things I had never done but had always wanted to do. And they were all reasonably close together in the north of the great metropolis.
Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery. A walk across Hampstead Heath. The Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon. A Triple-H whammy.
I was staying in a cheap hotel near King’s Cross Station. It was just a few stops on the tube to Highgate station, and then a short walk to the Cemetery. It’s the most famous in London, mainly on account of the number of famous people buried there.
It’s also privately owned. You can’t just wander in and look around – you have to pay a small entrance fee to the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, who maintain it. The price includes a small map of who is buried there. It’s a remarkable list.
Buried in Highgate
‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ author Douglas Adams. Chemist and physicist Michael Faraday. Painter Lucien Freud. Singer George Michael. Novelists George Eliot and John Galsworthy. Henry Gray, the famous anatomist. Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan. Economist and philosopher Herbert Spencer. Charles Dickens’ younger brother Alfred, his wife Catherine, and his parents John and Elizabeth. Actors Bob Hoskins, Colin Redgrave, Patrick Wymark, Jean Simmons, Diane Cilento, and Sir Ralph Richardson. Scientist Jacob Bronowski. Authors Stella Gibson, Alan Sillitoe, and Anatoly Kuznetsov. And lots more.
But I was there to see the most famous grave of them all – the imposing tomb of the Father of Communism Karl Marx. It features a giant bust of the great man. No matter your thoughts on his philosophy, he was one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Since my brief flirtation with Marxism when I was about twelve I had always wanted to visit where he was laid to rest in 1883.
I surprised to learn that the current monument dates only from 1954, the year of my birth. That was when Marx and his wife Jenny (and his children and lover) were exhumed and reinterred 100 metres away in what was deemed to be a more appropriate celebration of his memory. The imposing mausoleum was paid for by the Communist Party of Great Britain and has become the most visited grave in the cemetery. (Yes, I know. It’s a Communist plot).
On the day I was there a sad old Eastern European woman was wandering around the area aimlessly, seemingly still unable to come to terms with his death. “Are you a Socialist?’ She asked me in badly accented English. I told her I was, not wishing to enter into the complexities of my Radical Pluralist political philosophy.
A few other people turned up, including a bemused young Korean couple and some sort of tour group. I played the Communist anthem ‘The Internationale’ out loud on my mobile phone before moving on to the second of my Big Three Hs destinations for the day.
It was another short walk to Hampstead Heath, a giant park on the highest ground in London. Its centrepiece Parliament Hill has the best view of London from anywhere, a wonderful panorama that stretches across the centre of town and the City
Across the Heath
There were people and dogs and horses everywhere. It was quite a warm day for winter and very sunny. Great walking weather. As I made my way across the Heath I had to keep avoiding hundreds of Public School boys on some sort of cross-country run. Their path seemed to keep criss-crossing mine. They were churning up the ground and most of them were covered in mud. None of them looked very happy.
Hampstead Heath is a big place – 800 acres. Lots of copses and bushes and bridle paths and walking trails. Very enjoyable. I left at its western end and walked a few blocks through London suburbia to Golders Green tube station. A train took me on to nearby Hendon, a former airfield that is now home to the Royal Air Force Museum.
You want Lancaster bombers? You want Spitfires? You want Hurricanes and Messerschmitts? There’s a giant hanger devoted to the Battle of Britain, and many other halls full of mostly military aircraft.
I spent the rest of the day there. Before my descent into Marxism as a youth I was a mad Airfix model airplane constructor. Still today I can recite the manufacturers and model numbers of most of the major aircraft from all sides in both World Wars. Just about all of them were there. It’s the largest collection in the world. But they’re not models – they’re real.
They had my favorite aircraft, the German Junkers 88 light bomber. It’s one of only two left – the other is in the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
There are none at all in Germany. The Ju-88 was a fabulous piece of machinery, much better plane than the Heinkels and Dorniers that Herman Goering also sent against London in 1940. It was the most versatile German aircraft of the war, also serving as a night fighter.
Dreams of my youth
I was like a little boy again, but with full-size toys. But after hours of wandering the halls dark was falling and I was leg weary and footsore. I got the bus back to the tube station and the train down to Embankment on the Thames. I had a few pints and a plate of steak and chips at my favourite London pub, the Sherlock Holmes. I had a nice chat to a retired American chemist and his daughter, who was studying in London.
Then I wandered off up Charing Cross Road into the heart of the West End to mingle with the Saturday night revellers. It’s quite possible I had another pint or two somewhere else. I must have got back to my hotel OK because I was on the train to Edinburgh at 8am the next day.
What a wonderful way to spend a day. The delights of solo travel. Just me and Karl and my Ju-88.