On the night of 30th November 1936, thousands of people gathered around Upper Norwood in south London to watch an iron and plate glass building known as The Crystal Palace burn to the ground. Many came because they had seen a strange orange glow in the sky, and they brought their families and friends with them. Flames licked the sky and the crowds were mesmerized. The ground underneath their feet disappeared under twisted, tangled lengths of fire hose. Over 400 fire fighters battled the blaze through the night, but it was no good. By morning, the giant glass beacon that had shaped the skyline for nearly 100 years was gone. It had stood on the site since 1854.
In 2014, Crystal Palace Park, which sits atop Sydenham Hill on the Norwood Ridge and stretches downwards all the way to Penge, is somewhere that people go for many reasons. They go there to exercise – they swim at the National Sports Centre or they run along the terraces, limbering up on the steps and then dashing off across the pebbles. It’s somewhere they go to walk their dogs or their children. It’s somewhere they go to eat ice cream and hunt for dinosaurs, to sit and read or to bask on the grass. For the enthusiastic musician, it is somewhere to go to practice the trombone or the bagpipes without disturbing the neighbours. The Italian terraces sprawl out in front of you as you stand at the top of the park, and on a clear day you can look across Kent all the way to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford and the North Downs. If you cross the Parade and walk along Westow Hill, there’s a spot where you can gaze on all of London. It’s high up here, and it’s easy to feel like you own the world. It’s hard to imagine that a great iron and glass structure once stood here, reflecting the sky and housing a plethora of installations and displays, but it did, through almost the entire Victorian era and right up until very near the start of the Second World War.
The Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, was plagued by crisis and ruin right from the word go. It was moved from Hyde Park in 1854 after being built for The Great Exhibition of 1851, an idea by Prince Albert – the exhibition would showcase the various industrial triumphs of the British Empire to the rest of the world. It found a new home on Penge Place, which was owned by a friend of Joseph Paxton. But it’s new life was not plain sailing by any means. Before it’s untimely demise, a fire in December 1866 broke out and destroyed the north end of the building. In 1892, one person died in a hot air balloon accident in the grounds, and 8 years after that, an elephant escaped and trampled a person to death. By 1911 the palace was declared bankrupt because it was impossible to maintain financially. After that, despite new management and a trust fund set up to save it, the palace and it’s grounds were never the same.
On a cloudy day in 2014 my brother and I are walking along the Crystal Palace terraces. I am trying to learn things about the site that I can later write here to impress you all with, and I want to take photographs but the day is so miserable that I do not feel I can do the park justice. We walk along the top terrace towards what was once the Grand Central Walk leading up to the palace entrance. We stare up at the now deactivated transmitter mast and the green slopes that lead away from us to the left. Behind them is Crystal Palace Parade. My brother says ‘well here’s a fact about the palace, although I don’t know if it’s true. Apparently when it burnt down they couldn’t be bothered to remove all the rubble so they buried it under these slopes instead.’ An interesting idea, and looking at the slopes now, thick with foliage, it’s easy enough to imagine twisted metal and plate glass hidden underneath the mounds and long forgotten. But is it true?
The next day I go back with my Dad, who lives in Upper Norwood. He says he heard the same story (it’s likely he told it to my brother) but Google turns up no results on the matter, although I’d like to believe that the ground we are standing on is a cemetery to a long lost Victorian architectural wonder.
The white tripod structure in this picture appears to be either the only remaining part of the actual Crystal Palace itself or a reconstruction to show where it would have stood. Below is a 1950’s photograph of the then-remaining south wing of the building, which was destroyed by vandals that decade. You can see the white arch-like structure, although bigger and more ornate.
I grew up in and around this park – it serves as the backdrop for so much of my life as child and adult. I remember playing on the swings in the playground and having picnics and barbeques with friends on the grass on the Sydenham side of the park. As a child, I ran races there as part of an inter-schools cross country championship. As an adult I have run the Race for Life there in aid of Cancer Research UK. I have been swimming at the National Sports Centre and also to Merlin Premier League Sticker swap shops there, queuing up for hours and swapping stickers with other kids on the grass outside in the mid 90’s.
In 2012, when the transmitter was deactivated and there was an odd light show put on for the people of London to enjoy, I went along and stood in the pouring rain underneath the thing to watch (it was disappointing). I have attended fireworks displays there and concerts (classical music at the concert bowl and pop music on the terraces). I walk through the park every time I visit the dentist. I don’t have to do that – it would be quicker to walk up Anerley Hill. But the park is nice. And recently, during an impressive series of summer thunder storms, I hiked up the hill from Penge with my friend Katie so we could sit atop the terraces as it got dark, watching lightning strike the hills and valleys that were spread out before us. Crystal Palace Park has been a large part of my life, something always there in the background. And I guess when something is that much of a backdrop, it does BECOME a backdrop, and you don’t think about the whys and wherefores.
Walking through the park on THIS day, having done a little bit of Google research beforehand, it occurs to me that I am walking through a boneyard. A relic from Victorian times with some interesting history. The remains of these days gone past are everywhere around, if only you open your eyes and look. In the top corner of the park, on the Anerley side, next to the museum, there’s the base of one of the old water towers that was used to feed the enormous fountains in the park. It’s nothing to look at now – only 10 feet high ramshackle and covered in ivy. But it used to stand 280ft tall, along with it’s twin on the opposite side of the park.
Different web pages have different accounts of why these towers were pulled down – they both survived the fire. Some state that they were taken down to avoid them being used as landmarks by German bombers during WW2. Other accounts report that this one at least was pulled down as it was structurally unsound and too close to the main road.
There are pairs of sphinxes flanking the steps at the ends of the terraces – I’ve been a fan of them for years, and now follow their spoof account on Twitter. They are damaged and graffiti covered but in tact, as are 3 statues from the original gardens that stand at intervals along the terraces.
And while a lot of the original features of the grounds are now lost, and replaced by the sports centre and it’s car park – Joseph Paxton’s giant head remains in the centre of it all.
The dinosaurs are still here too, although an air of neglect hangs around them also. The swamp in which they reside is one of my favourite features of the park. They were created in 1853 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and Paleontologist Sir Richard Owen and unveiled the following year. So large were they that a 20 person dinner party was held inside one of the models on New Years Eve 1853.
The collection was the first ever attempt of life-size sculptures of dinosaurs. Victoria and Albert apparently liked them a lot, and visited often. They are considered wildly inaccurate in their portrayal of actual dinosaurs but represent a brilliant insight into the Victorian era, and how they viewed dinosaurs at the time.
The question is, why is this great example of Victorian ruin in the largest city in the UK so neglected? Various proposals for the regeneration of Crystal Palace Park have been made over the years – the current one being put forth by a Chinese company that hopes to rebuild it. But nothing has ever been done and the grand terraces and statues, which you suspect would be revered and preserved in many European countries – attracting thousands of visitors – have been left to slowly fall apart with no-one paying any attention. Noone has ever rebuilt the fountains. Joseph Paxton’s head (a grade II listed bust) lives in a car park. Walking around the park today (a sunny day this time, so I can take nice photographs – hooray!) I start to wonder why this site hasn’t been shown quite the respect it deserves. It’s been through a lot.
A Quick List of Attractions that Crystal Palace Park has Played Host To Since 1854
The Crystal Palace (now gone)
Italian Terraces (still mostly there, Grade II Listed)
A grand maze (still there but not grand)
Football ground which hosted the FA Cup between 1895 and 1914 (now gone)
London Country Cricket Club between 1900 and 1908 (on site of athletics stadium)
Home of Crystal Palace FC between 1905 and 1914 (now gone to Selhurst Park)
Dinosaurs (still there, Grade I Listed)
English Landscape Garden designed by Edward Milner (now gone)
Crystal Palace Railway Station – High Level (now gone, subway remains but is closed to the public)
Crystal Palace Railway Station – Low Level (still open, Grade II listed)
400 ft Long Marine Aquarium (built 1872, now gone, site of transmitter)
Crystal Palace Circuit between 1928 and 1972 (now gone – closed due to noise pollution)
National Sports Centre, built 1964 (still there, Grade II listed)
Sir Joseph Paxton bust, by William F. Woodington, 1873 (still there but moved from original location)
Concert Platform (still there)
Crystal Palace Museum, housed in a building built circa 1880 by the Crystal Palace Company (still there)
Crystal Palace Zoo (now gone – opened 1952)
Things proposed but never built included a drive-in cinema and a butterfly house.
All photographs by Christina Owen copyright 2014 unless stating otherwise