Opened in 1839 by the London Cemetery Company, Highgate Cemetery West occupies approximately 17 acres of land upon the steep slopes of Highgate’s West Hill. Enclosed by high walls and bordered to the east by notoriously haunted Swains Lane, the cemetery has since the 1970s developed a reputation as one of the most haunted locations in the UK, if not the world. However on a more local level the land now occupied by the infamous necropolis, with its crumbling stone angels and ivy-strewn Egyptian architecture, has been reputed to be haunted since at least the early part of the nineteenth century. Swains Lane itself is an ancient thoroughfare, and it is here that the majority of people’s paranormal experiences seem to take place.
Perhaps the most likely place to spot the cemetery’s best known resident ghost - or ghosts - is at the North Gate near the top of the lane. It was here in 1969 that David Farrant encountered a tall dark figure, over 7ft tall and swathed in black, hovering upon the path inside the gate. It was this sighting which catapulted Highgate into the international press, however it was certainly not the first of its kind. While descriptions of this entity vary, it chiefly appears to manifest as a cowled, practically faceless form with glinting eyes, or as a tall man dressed in a long coat or cape and wearing a high hat. Only one known witness claims to have encountered it in both incarnations, if in fact the entities are one and the same. A gardener working in the cemetery in 1962 was paralysed with fear, when he and a colleague saw a hooded figure rising up above the cemetery wall, apparently staring intently at them. In 1968 whilst returning home up Swains Lane the witness again encountered a tall dark figure, this time standing a short distance inside the North Gate and wearing what he took to be a top hat. Upon being noticed, it seemed to fade into the patch of mist which surrounded it.
Three years earlier Brian Bourne, an Army Officer, had just passed the North Gate on his way down Swains Lane when the atmosphere noticeably altered, and his lurcher dog began to whine. As he stared in horror, Brian recalls a black mass moving down the cemetery wall to the lane, where it slowly reared up to form a column of darkness approximately 7ft high.
But the cemetery’s main gates have also seen their share of supernatural occurrences. In 1969 an elderly lady was startled to see a movement inside the gates as she was walking her dog past them one evening. This ‘tall dark man’ with reddish eyes, who appeared to be hovering above the ground, frightened her dog so much that it refused to go any further. Fortunately, unlike Bourne’s canine companion which died mysteriously a few days after their sighting, the old lady’s dog survived the shock.
In 2005 Martin Trent, a local man, had one of the closest sightings of the entity in modern times – and even heard it speak. As Martin descended the lane one August night approaching 12.00am, he became aware of a strangely dressed man in a great coat standing opposite the main gates. By the time Martin, in his shorts and t-shirt, passed the top-hatted stranger he had become acutely uncomfortable, and was disturbed when the man, who was around 12ft away from him, seemed to whisper directly in his ear “Good evening to you, sir.” Hurrying past, Martin looked back up the lane when he reached his turning, and by now could see that the figure was standing in front of the main gates. As he watched, the entity seemed to glide across the road, disappearing in the direction of the East cemetery.