Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Crystal Palace

Last Christmas N gave us a fab book called "London's Lost Rivers" by Tom Bolton

which, as its name suggests, is about the London rivers that have been concreted over, turned into sewers, or even, occasionally, cleaned up. Last week T and I decided to investigate the river Effra, which starts at Crystal Palace in SE London. 

Well, well, Crystal Palace! I had not been there for years. I dimly remembered something about dinosaurs, and just outside the station, this little mural confirmed it. 

So when the Great Exhibition of 1851 came to an end, its revolutionary glass building, known as the "Crystal Palace" was dismantled and taken to the far reaches of Sydenham, SE London, to be re-erected as a permanent attraction and venue.  A large park was built around it and, fascinatingly, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, assistant superintendent of the Exhibition, was given the job of creating sculptured dinosaurs for a kind of Victorian theme park nearby.   

 Hawkins was, among other things, a renowned sculpture of unusual animals, and dinosaurs were one of the hottest scientific ideas around. So many huge skeletons had been found that scientists knew there must be some explanation - the question was, what?  We were obviously on the verge of discovering something new but it would be some years before Darwin would publish "Origin of Species."  

They are are not the most accurate of dinosaur reconstructions.  They are just too early for that. But they have survived 160 years so far, and are still appreciated..  

The dino park is set around a lake.  The grounds have been cleverly planted with a combination of exotic, vaguely prehistoric looking plants and trees  so the dinosaurs appear to be wandering around in a forest...

or climbing in or out of the swamps

And what about these plants?  I think they are the pods of the broom bush. 

Many of the sculptures are not actually of dinosaurs, but of extinct creatures. I liked these prehistoric elks called Megaloceros. According to the explanatory notice board, the original sculptures had real fossil megaloceros antlers attached to them.  Since they had, of course,  turned to stone, they were far too heavy for the sculptures and were soon replaced with carved ones. 

This cheerful little felllow below was my favourite dinosaur

Hawkins' original sketch for the dinosaurs had them looking cheerful too, except for the grumpy one on the left, stomping away from the party.

You'll also notice that his picture shows carefully crafted rock strata - and they're still there, too, next to the waterfall. 

If you're wondering why the caption to Hawkins' drawing is in German, by the way, it's because I caught a very interesting exhibition 18 months ago in Coburg, Germany.  They're very proud  there of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, who came from Coburg, and well they might be. He was the most intelligent and socially aware of all the royals, and took an eager interest in scientific advances, particularly paleontology. In 1853, The Crystal Palace Company held a New Years Eve party actually IN an iguanadon.

Coburg Natural History Museum had even provided a mock-up of what the iguanadon dining-booth looked like - I liked its wistful expression and you can glimpse the tables beyond

So that is the dinosaur park, but what of Crystal Palace itself?  It  burned down in 1936, and Paxton's great building was no more. 

I knew an old lady who sat on Parliament Hill in Hampstead, NW London, and looked right across the city to see the Palace burning in SE London.  There's an interesting first hand description of the fire here.
Now, there's just a huge grassy plinth where it used to be, but Bromley Council, which owns the park, seems to be itching to do something more with it.  First, it wanted to build a 20-cinema multiplex there - DUH!   That was stopped, as were plans for housing. But on the day we visited, I read in the paper that Shanghai-based billionaire ZhongRong Holdings is keen to develop an exact replica of the 900,000 square foot glass and iron Crystal Palace building. 

Their motives are very mysterious, and they say it is for the benefit of the public. But the question is, how?    I can't imagine a new Crystal Palace working as an event venue any more. London has plenty of big venues now, unlike in the 1850s, and Sydenham Hill and Upper Norwood are no longer country districts. They have little scope for improving parking and roads, and local residents in their cramped period streets may not appreciate a huge increase in traffic and congestion.  And bringing in loads of new people will certainly change the laid back, people-friendly and relaxed character of the park.

On the other hand, you don't maintain parks for free.  And a big development could buck up local businesses. Or, alternatively, it could swamp them,

Things have to change, and it's a tricky problem, but my instinct tells me that Chinese billionaires aren't going to provide an answer I'd like myself. Watch the Crystal Palace Campaign's website for updates 

The rest of our walk along the River Effra was also great - I'll write about that later. 


  1. Such an interesting post. I do love the way the park is set up with the dinosaur sculptures looking as if they are roaming around. What adventure there are to be had for child and adult alike.

  2. Beautiful park!
    I think there might be a niche market for the reproduction of the crystal palace. Seems like there are people out there that want the true feeling of something from the past but with modern amenities ( for weddings comes to mind). Should be interesting what happens next.

  3. Of course I've got an interest in the Crystal Palace from my days working as a waterways historian. The glass was manufactured at a factory in Smethwick, West Midlands, called Chance's. It was shipped to the city by canal boat and - as I used to tell enthralled kids on visits to the site - not a single pane was broken when it arrived!

  4. Jenny, it was a surprise for me, so I thought the Crystal Palace is still in a park! When I went by train and saw this station I believed it is there. Thank you for telling and I'm not sure the Chinese will answer you what they want of the reconstruction.

  5. What a great discovery, Jenny! I love it! I think next time I'm in London, that'll be on my list of places to go for sure. I'm now looking forward to the rest of your walk along the Effra! Have you come across the River Crane? That seems to be another of those 'forgotten' rivers too although I'm now following a twitter contact who is promoting the river, so maybe it's recovered from obscurity now :-)

  6. While i wouldn't mind someday seeing a replica of the Crystal Palace, i agree that placement would be everything.

  7. Always enjoy dinosaurs, what an interesting park and the book sounds even more interesting.

  8. I never knew about all those wonderful sculptures at Crystal Palace. I'd love to have a good look at them. The megaloceros antlers are extraordinary. They must have been quite a burden to carry around!

  9. Foreign bodies seem dead keen on taking over this country -...thinking of car manufacturers and the like. Having said that I believe the Chinese are dab hands at organising magnificent garden features. I suppose it's a case of wait and see.

  10. You make it all more interesting with the history of the park. Funny how his dinosaurs looked friendlier in general. Really makes you wonder what the Chinese investors plan to do with it. Stay tuned, I guess. :)

  11. I've long been interested in the Crystal palace and wish I'd been around to see it. What an innovation for the time. I understand they once had fully grown oak trees inside.

  12. Thank you for such an interesting post, and such great photos. My son and I also had a brief exploration around a couple of vanishing rivers in the Bayswater area recently. I must buy that book!

  13. Wow! Jenny, this is fabulous -- what a haven to discover and then to see these magnificent sculptures! That just blows my mind! Quite detailed. And it just looks beautiful! I can imagine a dino-happy kid just getting lost there!

    I remember hearing of the Crystal Palace fire. How sad that must have been. I hope that whatever is done on the site, it preserves some history. (A multiplex? I think not...)

  14. Always beware of people with lots of money who want to improve a neighborhood. It is never what you think.

  15. That Dinosaur park looks very much like my kind of place, Jenny! I was strongly reminded of a book I read about three years ago (before I started posting a review for every book I read), "Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier. I can highly recommend it.

  16. The London lost rivers, fascinating, there are so many!
    Another great tour to a place I never managed to get into, although we delivered around there in the 80's.
    Fascinating stuff!

  17. Oh yes, and I forgot to add the Billionaire may get his way, billionaires often do!

  18. Interesting post... may have to visit there.
    I have a leaflet and photos of my Grandparents with my mother visiting there, the Empire Exhibition. May I link your posting to mine on my blog?
    Thank you in advance

  19. How neat! I've never seen a park quite like this.

  20. Wow, the original "Jurassic Park" was in London! Interesting connection to Coburg, which is only about 100 km from my home town. Small world.

  21. Hi,Jenny
    You really surprised me. Those dinosaurs are powerful arts. Some look as if they were roaming in the Palace.

    Hello, dinosaur in the twelve photo! Your eye put a smile on my face!

    It must have been so sad about Crystal Palace fire,Jenny.
    Thank you for sharing!

    Have a good day!

  22. That was so exciting. Being a non-Londoner (i.e. not only do I not live near London but the traffic has always put me off visiting) I knew nothing of this park and it was really interesting. I think Little Stumpy, your favourite dinosaur, would have been mine as well.
    So far as Crystal Palace is concerned I would love to see it rebuilt but, of course, know nothing about the need for it or the damage it could do which, sadly, does sound to outweigh the idea of having one of ritain's greatest buildings back.

  23. Ooh! What a fun walk!

    My son woould definitely love the walk and meeting up with those dinos. :)

    I hope whatever is in store for Crystal Palace will benefit it and the people there.

  24. This is fascinating and I really like the photos. I've read about the old (original) Crystal Palace but didn't know anything about its subsequent history.

    Those Megaloceros are very impressive!

  25. I have a very old relative in a nursing home in Blackheath - and now you have me wondering if there is any way I can get her to Crystal Palace - I've see the signposts often enough, and she'd love to visit this park! It must be wheelchair friendly, surely?

  26. Yet another fascinating and informative post which, together with Ken Gibbons' words, I very much enjoyed. Every time you do a London post I think that I might make another visit to London to see old friends and old haunts (and particularly explore more of the V & A which I have never fully done) but the sheer numbers of people puts me off each time.

  27. What an interesting park! How awful that the crystal palace burned down.

    I want to say thank you for visiting my blog and for your kind comment. Yes, nature is truly wonderful!


  28. Jenny, I enjoyed your informative post. The photos were very good. I'll be bakc to visit...thank you for visiting my site. xoxo,Susie

  29. Hi Jenny - delightful visiting with you - and you visit EVERYWHERE - as always. Your adventures in places I can only dream about seeing in person are such a treat. Love this sum-up on the Crystal Palace grounds and the old dinosaurs there. Tragic about the fire but I think I agree with you - the answers won't be found in your China billionaire that will have a lasting good, I daresay. Don't want to see the historic nature of the villages compromised with a big contemporary commercialized industry. TOO much of that here in America and we destroy our history almost as quickly as we make it. Then, re-write it and skew it to fit the trendy new thing. Gah! Love the old English parishes you featured earlier, too. THAT is of great interest to me - so much history there that is still having a great impact today, however lost in contemporary society. Shame about the little thatched roof church doomed to be under-water. Wonder if that old cliche - "time and tide wait for no man" would be appropriate here. Anyway - joy to you, milady. Heal well from those buggy bites. My daughter and I are prone to those nasties, too. I use essential oils and have a great blend I carry with me all the time now that works to perfection!

  30. Lovely article Jenny. I knew crystal palace had been destroyed in a fire, but I had forgotten it had been moved first.

    Interested to read more about this river Effra.

    PS My wife, who is Chinese, says never trust a rich Chinese businessman bearing gifts.

  31. You always have the most interesting photos!

    I'd never heard of the Crystal Palace before. What a cool place! I need to save my $ so I can go visit there myself someday.

  32. What an interesting area for just wandering and taking photos. I learn so much from others journeys.

  33. These artistic concepts of prehistoric creatures turned out to look quite whimsical by today’s standards. I wonder if the area can be maintained primarily as a park. I can envision a small gift shop and/or teashop in the park as well as a museum that also works as a real place of study for paleontologists and students who can earn a few dollars for tuition by maintaining the lawns and plants.

  34. The other river fan LOVED this post. It's fun to explore rivers, and sometimes you have to be a real sleuth to figure out their original courses and where they've disappeared to. Such a pity that so many (in Tokyo) have been taken underground or redirected into ugly concrete canals, but I do understand that flood control is vital. :(

    That park looks like the perfect spot on a hot summer's day.

  35. Well Jenny, everything about this is news to me. What a marvellous education. Thanks for the tour, another thing to add to the bucket list.

  36. Fascinating ... I must take my son there. We are off to London at the weekend but the agenda is full already so maybe next time!

  37. What a beautiful park, Jenny! I wonder if it is at all wheelchair friendly...must tell a friend living in London about this. He would love it and so would his dog.

  38. An absolute delight to read and view! I do love cutsie little dino, too.

    On a slighty lesser parky scale...(I'm rubbish at reviews).....my son-in-law James' landscaping business gave South Hill Park in Bracknell it's complete new makeover. I was so proud walking round the grounds. The ghost in the house itself however, had the cheek not to appear until I developed the photos!

  39. I was so interested reading everyone's interesting reactions and remarks. I will look out for SOuth Hill Park if I go to Bracknell, Helena, it's not far away. Must be a simply wonderful job to re-landscape and transform places. e, I thnk that the park is wheelchair friendly, though the area is quite hilly in general, I mean it is part of the ring of hills that seems to surround London. I saw a couple of people in wheelchairs.
    Rourousha, a lot of Londno's small river is hidden but parts reappear here and there, in a way that makes it even more fascinating. There are manholes and you can hear the river rushing inside. Someone should do a book on Tokyo's rivers, I'm sure there is just as much of interest to write about there.
    Penelope, luckily the park is large, and much of it will be maintained as open space. I'm more concerned that the area in general surrounding the park will be swamped and become busy and stressful with cars and more people than can comfortably be managed. I think they're worried about that, too.
    Haha, Twisted, I suspect your wife has hit the nail on the head!
    More comments coming up..

  40. What a long interesting comment Kathryn. Would love to know what your essential oil bug bite remedy was. A friend in FL once gave me liquid meat tenderizer in an oil base and that was great but when I saw her again last Feb she had forgotten what it was and had switched to a powder tenderizer!
    Jo, the park is wheelchair friendly, as I said above. The train stations en route didn't seem to include Blackheath, but as the crow flies it's not that far and she could probably manage in a taxi. It's a super place for an outing, and a nice friendly Greek cafe selling all different kinds of food at the far end of the lake.
    So Lina, yes your son would be tickled by this. park, i think. It has a sport park in it too (the park) it's huge! And Jeanie, there were lots of dino happy kids around, it was fun to see them.

    Actually John and Bonnie, your comment about getting back one of London's iconic buildings, are thought provoking. To have something big there would probably generate more interesting stuff. I suspect it could poach from Alexandra Palace in the North, which was designed as a rival to it.
    OMG AJ I would have been open mouthed too to know that not a single pane was broken. The whole story of the original |Crystal Palace in 1851 is mind boggling.
    Val, I had not heard of the River Crane and will google it.
    Stephen, they did have trees inside it, I think they were already growing there and the Palace was built around them (which seems a lot simpler than transporting them from a nursery somewhere). The whole place was so creative and amazing.
    Meike, I too have enjoyed Tracy Chevalier's book and thought of it both when I went to Crystal Palace and also to Coburg.
    Christine, I'd be honoured to link to your blog, thank you!

  41. Oh. My. Gosh.
    This place is AMAZING. I want to go here, wait... let me change that... I'M GOING HERE!!! I'm taking the children as well... beautiful!
    Also... The book is now on my wish list at Amazon.com... I bet it's an awesome read!


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