Newest Review: ... the earlier Exhibition of 1851 as a celebration of Britain's empire and sovereignty (or pomposity perhaps) but much of what remains has n... more
Fossils fuel a love for this park.
Crystal Palace Park (London)
Member Name: kevin121
Crystal Palace Park (London)
Date: 28/06/12, updated on 17/03/13 (195 review reads)
Advantages: So many unusual attractions that really make it unique; It covers 200 acres!
Disadvantages: Have to run the gauntlet of bad, rude drivers to get here.
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
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Summary: A one off.
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