We visit the monsters at Crystal Palace

Trip Start Sep 25, 2012
Trip End Oct 16, 2012

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Saturday, October 13, 2012

We've always been curious about the Green Chain Walks. The Green Chain goes right through Cator Park, just across the street from our flat, but where the path comes from, and where it goes, has been a mystery.  Until now.

A quick trip to the internet revealed that The Green Chain Walk is a 50-mile long series of urban trails that circle through Southeast London.  It includes about 300 "open spaces," --commons and wooded areas--as it snakes through towns and villages.  We downloaded the map for Section 10, which goes from Cator Park up to Crystal Palace, and in a trice were on our way.

The route took up through parts of Beckenham and Penge where we’d never been.  Turns out, unexpectedly, that Penge has some beautiful green and rather tony sections.  We saw grand old Victorian and Edwardian houses.  The upkeep on them is nearly unaffordable these days.  And of course it’s so hard to find good staff any more!

On the High street, just below the entrance to Crystal Palace, we passed the Bridge House pub.  A somewhat ominous sign taped to the front door said, “No football shirts or team colours.”  We visualized bloody brawls between contending teams, gave it a miss, and entered Crystal Palace park just as it started to rain.  People began taking cover just outside the public loos—see the scenic photo of the Gents, below.

Crystal Palace has a long and interesting history.  The original Crystal Palace was an immense cast-iron and plate-glass structure built in Hyde Park in honor of the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was designed to house the work of 14,000 exhibitors from around the world to showcase the latest high-tech fruits of the new Industrial Revolution.  The scale was astounding:  There was just short of a million square feet of exhibition space.  The building itself was over 1/3 of a mile long and 128 feet high.  Among other things,  Crystal Palace was for notable for being the World’s First [note world’s superlative] building to have public toilets.  Designed by George Jennings, the toilets were called “Monkey Closet flushing lavatories.”  During the course of the exhibition 827,280 monkeys paid one penny each to use them.

When the Great Exhibition closed after a successful six-month run, the Crystal Palace was taken down and moved by special train to SE London, on a hill above Penge.  It was rebuilt and actually enlarged.  It became a very posh venue for concerts, exhibits, and public entertainment of all sorts.  Anticipating modern megachurches, in 1857 a Baptist preacher named Charles Spurgeon (“The Prince of Preachers”) delivered a sermon at Crystal Palace to 23,654 people without using any amplification.  Either the acoustics were terrific, or Pastor Spurgeon had an incredibly loud voice!

The newly relocated Crystal Palace was the site of additional amazing events:  In 1871 the World’s First (NB world’s superlative) cat show was held there.  Some time thereafter, Robert Baden-Powel, founder of the Boy Scouts, while attending a Boy Scout meeting at the Palace first noticed that girls too were interested in Scouting (I wonder if perhaps they were actually interested in the Boy Scouts, not in Scouting).  This observation led him to organize the Girl Guides, later called the Girl Scouts. 

Alas, the Crystal Palace was not self-sustaining.  At the time most Londoners worked a six-day week, leaving Sunday as their only day off.  However, even though it would have been a prime day for family outings, activities at the Crystal Palace were minimal on Sundays because The Lord’s Day Observance Society lobbied against activities on “The Sabbath,” and strongly discouraged workers from visiting it then.

The sad decline of the Crystal Palace came to an abrupt end on the fateful day of November 30, 1936.  Sir Henry Buckland, chairman of the Board of overseers of Crystal Palace was taking a walk with his daughter Crystal (yes, she was named after the palace) and their dog (name unknown).  Sir Henry noticed a red glow from within the structure and called the Penge fire brigade.  But although 89 fire engines and over 400 fireman responded, the blaze rapidly spread throughout the building.  How could glass burn, you ask?  Well the glass didn’t, but the flooring was dry timber and there was a great quantity of inflammable material within the structure.  The blaze was spectacular—it could be seen across eight counties and 100,000 people came to watch the show!  Among the gawkers was Sir Winston Churchill, who memorably said “This is the end of an age.”

Though the actual Crystal Palace is long gone, the park where it stood, and a few crumbling concrete footings, remains.  And the surrounding village retains the venerable name.

We were particularly eager to see “the monsters,” which didn’t disappoint—see the dramatic photos below.  Some were scattered around the artificial lakes, several menacing the mallards swimming innocently by.  Others scurried up the hillsides, either escaping a charging T Rex or about to leap up to nab a pterodactyl in mid-flight.  They blended in beautifully with the surrounding vegetation, which even included palm trees and prehistoric-looking giant ferns.

Unveiled in 1854, the monsters predated Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species by six years.  They were—ready for this?—the Worlds First dinosaur sculptures.  They were commissioned to enhance the new home of the Crystal Palace by providing a distinctive atmosphere for the freshly-developed parkland, gardens, and lakes.  Fifteen species of extinct animals are represented.  By modern standards they are apparently quite inaccurate depictions, scorned by professional paleontologists.  But they are charming, and fun to look at, so who cares?

Continuing up the hillside on which much of the Park is built we came to the Crystal Palace rail station, which had only three weeks previously re-opened after having been closed for a 20-year refurbishment--they don’t rush restorations in the UK.  But it was worth the wait.  The station, originally built when the Crystal Palace was first moved there, is light and airy with rich colors, pleasing curves, and lots of space.  Though all the bricks and ironwork are original, the turnstiles, monitor screens, and various other electronic gizmos are state of the art

Just next to the rail station is the mellifluously named Brown and Green Café (“a wholesome lot more than just a train station café,” says their web site).  It’s run by two “local girls serving our gorgeous local community.”  As you can see from the photos, it’s a pretty gorgeous little café itself.  We had sturdy pots of tea and lovely croissants and brioches, and of course chatted up the family at the next table as well as the local girls behind the counter.

As we were sipping our tea, the sun came gloriously out, as it’s wont to do in those parts.  So we said fond farewells to the local girls and resumed our walk through the park.  We passed a huge building which were said to contain six swimming baths (swimming pools to you).  The army of white pyramids guarding the entrance (see photos) was intriguing, though it was hard to imagine what their function might have been.   

Annie led us back down to Penge by instinct.  Her creative route led us to a part of Parish Lane where we’d never been before, though it was only half a mile from the flat.  Then she saw an intriguing sign: “Alexandra Nurseries.”  “Let’s check it out!” she said.  But being a shy person, I was hesitant; it seemed so sweet and intimate.  Then I saw the chalkboard sign next to the entrance: “Hot soup and crusty bread.” I was in like a flash.    

The Alexandra Nurseries is an old fashioned garden shop and café.  It’s a quintessential English establishment, right on the cusp of charming and shabby.  The building behind it, where the proprietors live, is late Victorian.  The forecourt, overhung by an arbor, is scattered with antique tables and chairs.  The rest of the space is chock-full of green and flowering plants and all sorts of antiques displayed on old wooden shelves.

We sat in the charmingly rickety metal chairs and ordered tea and homemade cakes.  The tea is served in antique china tea pots.  Cups and saucers of a vaguely similar provenance were provided.  Charmingly, none of the pots, cups or saucers matched.  The tea was nice and strong, the scones had just the right degree of buttery crumbliness, and the Victoria sponge was superb.  John and Sarah, the proprietors, came out from behind the counter and introduced themselves.  They are former hippy gardeners, a tad bit younger than we are, so there was a lot to talk about.  They were thrilled that we lived just down the road.  They told us that they bought the property just six months ago, and had very recently completed the transformation of the cozy garden and café space where we sat.

 After we finished our tea they invited us inside for a tour of all the things for sale: hand made candles, knitted scarves, and antique gardening tools.  There were even some blank journals, lovingly covered with wool cloth salvaged from antique jumpers (sweaters).  And for icing on the proverbial, they stock artisanal bread from a bakery in Crystal Palace—what more could we ask for?  We bought a robust loaf, said fond farewells, and vowed to stop by again soon.  Which of course we did, for more tea and cakes.
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