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.