Walking round London pt17: Penge to Crystal Palace Park

Walking round London pt17: Penge to Crystal Palace Park

Trains, boats and buses, gorillas, flamingos and dinosaurs, and a concrete cathedral

(ICYMI: on Sat 5 May, the writer walked 36km as the first quarter of a 120km circumnavigation of the capital for charity; on Sat 26 May, he walked the next quarter. These blogs are to publicise the fundraising and consider the vernacular. There’s a full list of chapter/sections at the end of each blog.)

If I’d had any doubts that Crystal Palace Park was on an annoyingly large hill, these are swept away as I turn from Kingswood Road onto Penge’s High Street, which slopes alarmingly under two railway bridges to the gates of the park, 500m away and what feels like the same distance above. But I attack the gradient with gusto, for CPP has been my mental finishing line since 9am this morning; the actual tape is slightly further on at the Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, but who can picture that from the Royal Victoria Dock?

The hill allows for a good angle of the two contrasting railway bridges that cross the High Street. The steel-girdered first one looks more modern, but that crossing is the older one: it carried the 1839 London & Croydon Railway, which in 1846 merged with other companies to form the London Brighton & South Coast Railway: seaside here we come.

In fact, the first railway crossing here wasn’t a bridge. The London & Croydon traversed the High Street via a level crossing: trains would wait patiently behind closed gates until behatted minions appeared to close off the street. They gave up on that palaver in 1841, converting the level crossing to a bridge by the excellent wheeze of lowering the street, which now dips so noticeably under the bridge that the run-off from heavy rainstorms can cause floods of engine-worrying depth.

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A double-decker worriedly eyes up the bridge height. Pic: David Anstiss, Geograph.co.uk

The water has been deeper, though: before the railways came the canals, and on this steeply sloping site the two arteries followed the same route. Powered by the industrial revolution, canals spread across Britain from the Bridgewater (1761), with an economic-bubble mania hitting from the 1790s to the 1810s — so the poor old Croydon Canal timed it very badly by opening in 1809.

Running from the Grand Surrey Canal at New Cross, it lasted just 27 years. In 1836, it became the first canal to be abandoned via an Act of Parliament and was bought for £40,250 by the London & Croydon Railway. This wasn’t unusual — as the railways eclipsed the canals in the 1830s and 1840s, companies would frequently buy the rival canal and hike the tolls, forcing freight onto trains — but on this narrow site they simply filled it in and followed the same course. Much of the rest of the canal was sold off for suburban housing developments by the 1870s, and now only the odd short stretch remains.

The second bridge is far easier on the eye, all ornamental panelled brickwork on three segmental arches. It was built in 1854 for the branch to Crystal Palace, which since its relocation here from Hyde Park in 1851 had proved quite the attraction. And it’s toward the Palace park that I head now.

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I wrote in the previous piece about how some parks may have a strictly local appeal: a quick escape for the nearby inhabitants, but not something you’d catch a bus to. Crystal Palace Park is not among their number. A people’s play area for the ages, it’s packed the gills as I walk through it at nearing 5pm on a Bank Holiday Saturday.

I’m not surprised. I’ve been to worse attractions which charge a fee, and this is free to wander around. The big draw is the dinosaurs, 22 statues that were at the cutting edge of palaeontology in 1854: sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins worked under the direction of Professor Richard Owen, neologist of the very word dinosaur.

Cast in bronze and artificial stone over iron rods and painted as realistically as was possible, they were created life-size: the iguanodon was big enough for 21 men to dine in its half-built body. Like all science, palaeontology moves on, and in 2000 they were renovated and reset around the lake, where islands were created to represent the contemporary rocks and plants; a numbered trail explains the statues and gently updates the incorrect.

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But there’s more here than just dinosaurs. Joseph Paxton, the architect and MP who had designed the very modern modular iron-and-glass Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, was understandably keen for his creation to be preserved; with Hyde Park out of the question, he looked for a new site and settled on Sydenham in London’s burgeoning southern suburbs.

Paxton was that wonderful thing: a dreamer who got things done. True, Parliament didn’t bite on his idea for a Great Victorian Way — a 10-mile covered railway come shopping arcade, designed like the Crystal Palace, linking London’s termini on roughly the present course of the Circle Line — but that’s largely because they were desperately funneling money towards Jospeh Bazalgette’s new sewage system after the Great Stink of 1858 offended Parliament’s nostrils.

But it’s Paxton we have to thank for the popularity of the Cavendish banana — he cultivated them in the 1836 Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, a Crystal Palace prototype inspired by a lily leaf upon which he stood his daughter Annie to test its strength. And Paxton was behind much of the ornate brilliance of Crystal Palace Park, from the Grand Central Walk to the flamingos to the boating lake with geologically accurate man-made islands to the cave with artificial stalactites. His bust, five times life size as if in parity with his vision and ambition, now sits outside the park’s National Recreation Centre.

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Paxo. Pic: Ethan Doyle White

There are other attractions in the Grade II*-listed park, too many to list here: a visitor centre on the site of the engine house which pumped water around for the inevitably impressive water features; the maze, recreated recently from the original design; and David Gwynne’s 1961 statue of Guy the gorilla in smooth marble.

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Then there’s the stuff that’s no longer there, like the motor racing track, armoury and, most excitingly, an experimental pneumatic railway. This ran between the Penge and Sydenham gates in the 1860s, propelling a train carriage down a 600-yard tunnel round a sharp bend and a 1:15 gradient, before reversing the fan to vacuum-suck the train back up the hill. Its inventor Thomas Webster Rammell started to build a similar job between Waterloo and Whitehall before that was ended by the collapse of a bank — the fiscal rather than structural kind.

And then, of course, the Crystal Palace itself, relocated here by the railways. The aforementioned London, Brighton & South Coast Railway funded much of the cost — director Leo Schuster handed over the park site, previously known as Penge Place in the Great North Wood — but the Palace never recovered the debts occured in the move: it had cost £150,000 to build but a boggling £1.3m to transfer, somewhere north of £150m in today’s money.

It burnt down in 1936: the day before Hallowe’en, 10 days before the abdication of King Edward VIII. They say you could see the blaze from eight counties; 100,000 people decided to take a much closer view, flocking to Sydenham to watch. Among them was Winston Churchill, then in backbench exile, who said “this is the end of an age”.

The park had lost its crown jewel but its caretakers still sought improvement. For the 1951 Festival of Britain — which would have been the old greenhouse’s centenary — festival director Gerald Barry suggested an exhibition centre, but the London County Council instead seized upon the small print of his idea and built a sports and training centre.

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The athletics stadium, with the sports centre beyond.

Reusing the site that had hosted the FA Cup Finals between 1895 and 1914, and Crystal Palace FC’s matches from their formation in 1905 to their war-enforced expulsion in 1914, the LCC’s architects got busy with the concrete. The athletics stadium opened in 1964 and parts of it haven’t weathered well, but there’s still a stark beauty to the angularity of the cantilevered roof supports.

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Those lovely roof supports.

Behind it is the National Sports Centre itself, a brutalist beauty designed by Sir Leslie Martin. It’s a marvel of form following function. Cantilevering out from a central spine, a complex but attractive exposed concrete frame supports the roof, lined in folded teak. As Nikolaus Pevsner enthused, “The interior is very impressive, not least because there has been no attempt to impress, no contrived effects.”

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Pic: Justin Nicholls

It also has a place in my own history. Back at the start of this series of blogs, I’d said that I’d recently stopped coaching the girls’ football team I’d seen through from primary to sixth-form. Well, the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre was the first place I’d coached, six seasons ago. It feels suitably cathartic, circular, of the Capital Challenge Trail to bring me past the start of that adventure.

I could bang on about the National Sports Centre for ages, but I shan’t here. Partly because an actual architect has already done it, with far more expertise and no less enthusiasm: please see Justin Nicholls’ blog here (from which I’ve borrowed a couple of pictures above).

But also because I have to be honest, dear reader: I consider going over for an architectural analysis but decide against it on grounds of time and tiredness. It’s a large detour over a forbidding-looking hill and would add a couple of punishing kilometres, which is essentially all I have left of the trail itself for this leg. Half-promising myself I’ll return when I haven’t already walked 30km+, I decide to push on. One more hill, dear?

Coming up next: Over the top

The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the South quarter (Crystal Palace to Richmond) will take place on Sat 9 June, the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) on Sat 7 July.

NORTHERN QUARTER, SAT 5 MAY 

• Pt1: Wembley to East Finchley • Pt2: …to Finsbury Park

• Pt3: …to Clissold Park • Pt4: …to Springfield Park

• Pt5: …to Hackney Wick • Pt6: …to Bow Back River

• Pt7: …to Channelsea River • Pt8: …to Royal Victoria Dock

EASTERN QUARTER, SAT 26 MAY

• Pt9: Victoria Dock to North Woolwich Pier • Pt10: …to Maryon Park

• Pt11: …to Hornfair Park • Pt12: …to Oxleas Wood

• Pt13: …to Eltham Palace • Pt14: …to Grove Park

• Pt15: …to Beckenham Place Park • Pt16: …to Penge

• Pt17: …to Crystal Palace Park • Pt18: …to Upper Norwood

Walking round London pt18: Crystal Palace Park to Upper Norwood Recreation Ground

Walking round London pt18: Crystal Palace Park to Upper Norwood Recreation Ground

Walking round London pt16: Beckenham Place Park to Penge

Walking round London pt16: Beckenham Place Park to Penge