FolkestoneJack's Tracks

A circular walk around Crystal Palace Park

Posted in Crystal Palace, England by folkestonejack on July 1, 2020

Our local lockdown wanders have brought us back to Crystal Palace Park, a gorgeous green space in South London and an endless source of wonder as a child. The extraordinary history of the long vanished glass palace and the surviving traces of the pleasure grounds never fail to fascinate on a visit, no matter how many times I have been before.

The Italian Terraces at Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace was a Victorian marvel that must have astonished visitors in its 82 year lifespan (1854-1936). The first Crystal Palace was built in Hude Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and then re-constructed on a more permanent footing on Sydenham Hill in 1852. In reality the substantially enlarged second palace was much more than a re-build. It was officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1854.

If you were taking the central staircase in the 1850s you would have seen six tiers of iron and glass towering over you, topped by a barrel-vaulted roof. To your left and right you have seen two 284 foot tall tall brick water towers flanking the palace, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to feed the water features in the grounds. All of that is now long gone.

The palace burned down in November 1936 and the water towers were demolished in 1941 to prevent their use as navigational wayfinders for enemy bombers. Instead, on climbing the terraces today you are greeted by a cluster of mature trees which don’t have quite the same impact. Yet, somehow the scale and ambition of the missing palace is still apparent as you approach the terraces.

Six of the original twelve sphinxes still stand watch, looking as splendid as ever. The last time I saw the sphinxes, in 2015, they were in a terrible state. Since then they have been beautifully restored and painted red following research into traces of paint that revealed the original colour scheme, matching the red granite of the Great Sphinx of Tanis in the Louvre from which they were cast.

One of the six sphinxes on the terraces in 2015

The restored sphinxes nearest the North tower

The pleasure grounds that the sphinxes looked out over were intended to be the match of the palace, with beautifully maintained landscape gardens, fountains that were supposed to rival Versailles and an army of statues.

The fountains featured 11,000 jets; 10 miles of iron pipes and a series of cascades. It was said that they surpassed anything to be seen elsewhere in the world. Little trace of that ambitious design remains, but we have to be thankful for what is left, such as the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (1854-1855) which clearly still delight children to this day (as they did me when I was much smaller).

On this visit I was reminded that the terraces and gardens were largely intact after the destruction wrought by the fire in 1936. There were 175 statues standing in the parks, but most were sold off by London County Council in 1957. In the heyday of the park there would have been 24 statues on the upper terrace representing cities and trading nations. Today, the most intact example still standing is the heavily worn robed figure of Turkey by Carlo Marochetti (1805-1867).

Among the tales that used to fascinate me as the child was the long vanished the Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway (1864) with the legend that a carriage was sealed in the tunnel when it was abandoned. The story was shattered by archaeological digs in the late 1980s which revealed that the tunnel was actually a cut and cover job, with half the tunnel above ground. Today, the route of the railway is echoed by a pathway which we followed on a circuit through the park.

A little further round on our circuit brought us to the maze, shut during the coronavirus crisis, and a lakeside concert venue. The Crystal Palace Bowl, a venue for concerts since 1961, looks in a sorry state with the floor in pieces and the guts ripped out of the speaker and amplifier towers. Bromley Council are looking at ways to re-activate the current structure, which dates to 1997.

The remains of the aquarium

Our circular walk brought us along the roads used for motor-sport events and back up towards the site of the North Tower. At its base are the remains of the aquarium built in 1870-71, a sight that I can’t remember noticing before. This was another ground breaking feature of the park – in its day it was the world’s largest inland sea water aquarium, featuring 60 tanks and 120,000 gallons of sea water.

The aquarium was not a commercial success, closing in the 1890s. The building itself was demolished in the aftermath of the 1936 fire but archaeological digs in the 1980s uncovered some of the remaining water tanks which can now be seen in a fenced enclosure. It looks intriguing but unfortunately there are no interpretation boards here so it is difficult to make sense of what is in front of you.

Our walk complete, we headed back to South Norwood on foot. It is always a pleasure to get re-acquainted with the park. It’s one of those places that I have kept returning to – including childhood visits in the 1970s, a guided walk with the Scouts circa 1986, watching the revival of motorsport at the Palace in the 1990s, the Olympic torch parade in 2012 and a visit to the Crystal Palace museum in 2015. I have a feeling I will be back before too long!

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Dinosaurs in danger

Posted in Crystal Palace, England by folkestonejack on October 24, 2015

The media spotlight turned to some of Crystal Palace’s most memorable inhabitants last week after the publication of this year’s Heritage at Risk Register. Amongst the structures identified as being in danger are the remarkable stone dinosaurs and sphinxes of the park, both a legacy of the landscaping carried out when the crystal palace constructed to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 was dismantled and moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham.

Iguanodon at Crystal Palace Park

Iguanodon at Crystal Palace Park

The statues were created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins around 1852-54 and hold huge significance as the first attempt to model dinosaurs as full-sized creatures, presented as if caught in the prime of their lives. As you might expect, such early interpretations are a little wide of the mark but all the more fascinating because of that.

The group of thirty statues actually only includes four dinosaurs in the strictest sense, with the remainder made up of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and other creatures from prehistoric times. A survey published in May 2015 concluded that the Grade I listed statues require significant conservation works.

The six sphinxes that once guarded the approach to the long gone Crystal Palace are also in a poor state of repair, with a variety of problems ranging from cracks to missing elements. The damage is particularly noticeable on the sphinxes that flank the partially collapsed South Terrace steps, one of which is missing its front paws completely.

One of the six sphinxes on the terraces

One of the six sphinxes on the terraces

An article from the BBC reports that plans for the restoration of the park are in place, including repairs to the sphinxes and the dinosaurs. I hope this delivers on its promises, though a post from the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs points out that only a tenth of the funding required to complete the work on the dinosaurs has been found so far.

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The changing face of Crystal Palace

Posted in Crystal Palace, England by folkestonejack on May 2, 2011

On my journey back from London Bridge I stopped off at Crystal Palace to try and get a shot of Railtourer’s ‘The Channel Coast Express’ railtour from Skegness to Chichester. The shot I wanted to capture was the tour passing under the existing passenger bridge and the modern booking office (an imitation of the Crystal Palace). The view is expected to change in the near future as plans were approved a year or two back to demolish the modern booking office and bring the victorian booking office back into use (assuming that the plans haven’t since bitten the dust in austerity measures!).

I have a vague recollection of passing through the old entrance and booking hall when I was small, but it would be great to see this brought back into use. The 3d images shown in the planning application certainly look pretty tasty so it would be great to see this happen.

47786 passes through Crystal Palace on 2nd May 2011

Class 47 diesel 47786 hauls the Channel Coast Express railtour through Crystal Palace on 2nd May 2011