“ Crystal Palace Park, Crystal Palace Road, London, England, SE22, 020 8 313 4407. Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham in 1852 and set in a large Italianate park designed by Paxton. Most of the park has gone but one fine terrace survives, a „
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Crystal Palace Park isn't one of those parks which the locals hardly know exists. It straddles two big London Boroughs (Croydon and Lambeth) and falls within a third: Bromley. It also sits at one of the highest points in south London and houses the two BBC transmitters which covered most of southern England.
Why would you want to visit? For those living nearby it's like a pair of green lungs. Walking around its 200 acres it would be easy to imagine you are somewhere more rural, perhaps near a few picture postcard hamlets but nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the lovely Victorian mansion houses which surround the park have long since been converted into tiny flats and the narrow roads are always choked with traffic. Parkland is at a premium for anyone wanting a breath of fresh air but for those who come here there are plenty of walks that can be taken without feeling too aware that this is one of the most densely populated parts of south London. For those who haven't visited before I think it's one of the nicest parks in my neighbourhood and it contains a few unique attractions.
What you won't see now of course is the Palace itself. Originally standing in Hyde Park, it was built as the centrepiece of The Great Exhibition in 1851. Organised to showcase Great Britain's achievements in the Industrial Revolution at that time, after the Exhibition closed, the Palace with it's iron structure and over a million feet of glass was carefully dismantled and moved here soon after. The creation apparently took its architect Sir Joseph Paxton only 10 days to design, but then being of mostly two materials, how hard could it be? At nearly 2,000 feet long and 130 feet tall it must have been a magnificent sight to see, and indeed being atop Sydenham Hill - one of the tallest spots in the south east - it was visible from afar. Home to such an outrageous structure, the grounds themselves could hardly be wallflowers now could they? Aside from Italian terraces, boating lakes and more usual landscape gardening were the fountains. Rising to a height of 200 feet, they must have put a few noses at Versailles well out of joint.
It would be impossible to cover every decent aspect of this park, so I thought I'd run through some of the highlights in a timely manner.
In 1936 a fire razed the Crystal Palace to the ground. Although there is nothing left of the structure, it's possible to walk around the grounds where it once stood. The Italian Terraces and some very grand staircases give a sense of the scale of the building which old photos simply can't, but just as interesting are the scattered statues and busts which have also survived. It would be easy to see the building, as well as the earlier Exhibition of 1851 as a celebration of Britain's empire and sovereignty (or pomposity perhaps) but much of what remains has no obvious connections to any Commonwealth countries. A sultan here, some Sphinxes there, several broken Roman leaders addressing whoever is inclined to lend them an ear too. Maybe the Bromley Sphinxes aren't as old as the Giza one, but those Victorians knew a good thing when they saw one because we have six of them here. The only problem is what to call them, Sphinxes or Sphinxi? Cairo wouldn't know, only having the one.
The last year a British woman won at Wimbledon. Unusually for a park there aren't any tennis courts here, but aside from a long gone dry ski slope, it's home to a National Sports Centre. The athletics stadium even has a stand opened by the Queen to celebrate her Silver Jubilee (handily called the Jubilee Stand for those with bad memories). I can remember my parents taking me to see athletics events here back when it was considered to have enough seating. Now the 20,000 capacity isn't deemed large enough to host international track events never mind the Olympics. The facilities are still good albeit sixties built, and tends to get used more by local schools and sports clubs. The stadium, incidentally, was built on an existing football pitch which was the home of the Cup Final for nearly 20 years prior to Wembley Stadium being built. Hallowed turf indeed.
For size and majesty from a different era, take a look at The Terrible Lizards.
No, not a term we use for the Palace football supporters but better known as Dinosaurs! Of course we now know all manner of creatures including birds come under this umbrella, but back when the term Dinosauria was coined by palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen in the mid 19th Century, precious few fossils had yet been discovered. Owen worked with sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to create 34 life-sized reptiles for the Park's official opening by Queen Victoria in 1854. Believing that the Dinosaurs lived amidst swampland Owen even went to the trouble of trying to recreate their natural environment as best he could, although the ferns and watery landscape you'll see today is a tame comparison to the Dorset and Isle of Wight millennia ago.
So frightening was this Victorian freak show that some women were said to have fainted at the sight of the creatures. Other visitors impressively kept their wits about them enough to pilfer some of the more accessible teeth and spiky parts of the reptiles as souvenirs!
To compare the Dinosaurs here with those you can see elsewhere would be unfair. The majority of them including the fearsome skeleton you can see in the Natural History Museum had yet to be discovered when Hawkins created these monsters in the park. They may now have been found to be anatomically incorrect, but then why be so picky? They're one of the park's most endearing attractions and I walk around them every time I'm here.
The Music Bowl.
Sadly T Rex neither reside here or played here, but the list of others who have reads almost like a mini Glastonbury. Pink Floyd, Jeff Beck, Santana, the Beach Boys, Rod Stewart and Bob Marley. The Bowl is little more than a stage set in front of a little lake with the audience able to sit where they want on the grass in front. I didn't catch any of the acts above although I did go to a few free concerts as a teenager back in the day when Bromley Council had money to spend on entertaining the public. Last weekend there was a concert featuring Rick Wakeman and Hawkwind amongst others which of course is ticket only access. The Bowl was replaced a while back with a metal monstrosity which may well be as good acoustically but looks awful. Still, my dog likes a paddle in the lake and comes out covered in algae.
The year a Scout rally being held here by Sir Robert Baden-Powell was rudely interrupted by a group of girls. Not wanting to be left out, they asked if he wouldn't set up "something for the girls". Indeed he did and by the following year over 5,000 girls had registered with the new Girl Guides movement. I was never interested in joining, but the Park's maze had a spruce up to coincide with their centenary celebrations. It really is large enough to get lost in if only temporarily, and has some attractive Lombardy poplars forming a grand entrance.
Analogue V Digital
The television transmitters which switched off earlier this year may be something of an eyesore but if nothing else they gave me darned good television reception. Not for me the fuzzy reception of country folk. The evening that our area went digital recently, there was a fantastic light display here, which was quite sad to watch. They are still a useful landmark for those visiting the Park for the first time too.
The S.S Crystal Palace.
The Palace wasn't a total Crystal elephant, it had its uses before it burnt down. Aside from showing 'moving pictures' and holding fayres and concerts, at the outset of the First World war it was taken over by the Admiralty. Although far from the shores, they used it as a recruitment and training centre for Royal Naval Volunteers. Over 125,000 men were said to have trained here, and it later came in useful as one of the largest demod centres in England. The SS Crystal Palace is a ship's bell and serves as a simple memorial to all the sailors lost in the later World War. Facing what is the largest lawned area in the park, the bell is hard to miss being in a small area of vivid tulips which are always immaculately kept.
Guy the Gorilla surely needs no introduction.
The real Gorilla has long since passed away, but a sculpture of him stands here, between the Boating Lake and the Café. There's no obvious connection with London Zoo and this park so I can't explain why he's here, only that he's very welcome. The kids all seem to love climbing on his back although I think he looks rather imposing.
For those who want to bring a picnic there is certainly the space to stretch out here, although the family run Café comes highly recommended from me for snacks or drinks.
The Olympic torch will be travelling through the Park on 23 July. Perhaps not as newsworthy as Fiennes running up Snowdon but still.
For those travelling here by car there is plenty of space in the two main car parks. We tend to use the NSC car park, which is less popular. My heart once sank when I looked across to see what I thought was a gypsy encampment set up nearby. I needn't have worried this is actually one of the Caravan Club's sites, so you can even stay here. I think I'd find it too spooky to stay overnight, but each to their own. For those travelling by train, the Crystal Palace station will find you only a few hundred yards away from one of the entrances, and it has excellent links to both London Bridge and Victoria.
A blast from the past or a waste of space?
I could easily be writing a different review about how neglected the park has become, if it wasn't for the interest Bromley Council have shown it, but thankfully not. The Dino's were given a much needed overhaul nearly 10 years ago, and although they might not create the excitement they did in Victorian times, they're still looking good for their ages.
But for all that, the reason I keep visiting time and again is that it's simply a lovely park to take a stroll around. It has some of the widest paths running around the outer edges I've seen outside of the central London parks which are a boon when the weather is awful and I really don't want to traipse through fields of mud with my dog. Even in better weather if you're prepared to explore the depths of the park and not just perch on the grass by one of the entrances, you should find it pleasantly uncrowded.
Also as much as I enjoy visiting Regents Park and Hyde Park their planting schemes seem a tad dry in comparison. If you want a natural abundance of mature trees, azaleas, rhododendrons and the like that would probably get sniffed at in the polished rose gardens of central London, then you should come here.
Crystal Palace Park
Want to stay here?
We've got Dinosaurs in South London! (No not Croydon local authority members)we've got 30 huge stone dinosaurs situated in nearly 200 acres of parkland, yes in London. Just behind the so-called 'National Sports arena' in Crystal Palace. These dinosaurs have been there for nearly 170 years, and there is some serious history to their surroundings (links later, you've got to read me now!) So what goes on at Crystal Palace Park? Right pack your car up, take bikes, scooters, rollerblades whatever, the dog oh.. and the kids, picnic if you want but there are some rather good chips to be had at the Park Cafe.However don't forget stale bread for the hundreds of ducks, and if squirrels are your thing - nuts. Free parking is available -on site - for about 150 - 170 cars, even then many more cars can park on the nearby street, or at the National Stadiums car park again all free. Once unloaded try and skip the small funfair alongside the car park, its ok, but you seem to spend a small fortune in there instead you may first of all let the wild ones use whatever form of wheels they have chosen race up and down the tree-lined paved tarmaced area running from the car park to the the stadium entrance, there is a slight incline which adds to the 'sport' sounds boring? Trust me gives you at least enough time to enjoy a coffee and a chat on one of the picnic tables lined all the way up the area. Next well, got to be ducks and dinosaurs I reckon, passing the Guy the Gorilla statue to the lakes, in the summer the pedalo boats are there for hire. Feed the greedy Canadian geese, and hope the pigeons don't muscle in. As you walk round the lakes you'll see these dinosaurs, they are big and badly in need of the current restoration taking place, the children love them. The walk around involves a few slopes and muddy declines that the children are drawn to, with clambering rocks and logs involved, those th
at prefer the mud free zone can stick to the path. Loads of fisherman to be seen too (a sport that I really can't relate too..) There are some extremely tame squirrels around and if the dog doesn't chase them off they'll feed from your hand. Eventually you will have walked a complete circle, but you've only done half of it. I suggest the chips are beckoning, the cafe is resonably priced with seating inside and out. If this is the summer season there will probably be a Punch and Judy show going on, or a small train ride for the under 8's all at a price of course. There is a good, enclosed childrens play are with the usual roundabouts (they scare me) tyres,swings climbing frames etc. You have yet to discover the maze - only worth a summer visit due to lack of folage so you can't cheat - , the bowl used for summer music events and looking very neglected in the winter and of course the historic remains of the burnt down Crystal Palace. All this is situated in endless open areas, for picnicing, jumpers for goalpost games of football, and huge shady trees. What I haven't told you is the bad news. At present the dinosaurs are not accessible due to the restoration program, which also means the some of the lakes are a no go zone too. Becuse of this the park train has stopped, it used to give you a full tour for 50p, lasting around 30 minutes. The childrens farm has been demolished and I assume is being rebuilt as it wasn't particularly pram friendly but it was another excellent attraction with goats wandering and nosing in your bag, beautiful doe-eyed cows, snorty smelly pigs and the cute pet area. Rumour has it all the work on the park area will take at least another year and I'm not sure which areas will be closed. Check these websites for full info: Dinosaur info: http://www.redrival.com/nyder/dinos.html Historical info: http://www.korkyt.net/Pages
/oldpages/crystal2.html http://www.victorianstation.com/palace.html Local info: http://www.virtual-norwood.com/links/cppark.htm I'm telling you those chips are worth the trip!