Crystal Palace, geographically at least, is defined by its height: Palace = Hills. Look around up there, across the great bowl of the London basin from its southern rim and you can drink in dramatic views North towards central London, where on a clear day you can see the Shard, the blooming towers of the City, Canary Wharf, and the iconic, reassuring dome of St Paul’s.
Turn and face another direction, say from the crow haunted heights of Crystal Palace park, and you can look towards the Surrey hills. Elevation is here in the street names too, as Anerley Hill, Beulah Hill, Central Hill, Gipsy Hill, Highland Road, Sydenham Hill and Westow Hill all testify, stretching towards the Norwood Ridge and Upper Norwood. Then, in the park by Crystal Palace parade, you can see up close that unmissable landmark of South London, the Transmission Tower, standing there as if purpose built to provide a hard metal, physical focus for all this height.
The Victorian’s knew what they were doing when they moved the original Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition site in Hyde Park to the top of Sydenham Hill. The huge glass building must have been an awesome spectacle. Marshall Berman captures its drama and magic in All That Is Solid Melts into Air:
“if we turn to the multitude of paintings, photographs, lithographs, aquatints and detailed descriptions of the real thing…what we see is a glass structure supported by barely perceptible slender iron beams, a structure with gentle, flowing lines and graceful curves, light almost to the point of weightlessness, looking as if it could float at any instant into the sky. Its color alternates between the color of the sky through the transparent glass, which covers most of the building’s volume, and the sky-blue of its narrow iron beams; this combination drenches us in a dazzling radiance, catching the sunlight from the sky and the water, shimmering dramatically. Visually, the building feels like a late Turner painting…moreover, far from being designed by arid mechanical calculation, the Crystal Palace is in fact the most visionary and adventurous building of the whole nineteenth century. Only the Brooklyn Bridge and the Eiffel Tower, a generation later, will match its lyrical expression of the potentialities of an industrial age. We can see this lyricism vividly in Paxton’s first sketch, dashed off in a couple of minutes on a sheet of blotting paper in the heat of inspiration.”
Tragically, this Palace on the hill burnt down in 1936, but in and around Crystal Palace park there are traces of its former magnificence to be found. On Saturday, as part of this year’s Open House London event, I was lucky enough to get in to see one of the more mysterious and beautiful of these Crystal Palace remnants.
Unlike most of the Crystal Palace site, this place is not high up above anything, but is hidden underground and is usually inaccessible to the public. Fortunately my wife entered a ballot and was lucky enough to win us places to visit.
On the edge of the park, near the bus station, is an architectural gem, which if you’re in a car racing along Crystal Palace Parade you’d probably never know was there.
The Crystal Palace subway was originally the way into the Palace itself for passengers arriving at the Crystal Palace High Level railway station. Initially intended exclusively for the use of First Class passengers, in its heyday this must have been one of the most stunning, ornate foot subways the world had ever seen.
Today, although gated off, dark and with some inevitable crumbling brick and stonework in parts, it still looks and feels a magical place, absolutely fitting for the great glass Palace it led towards.
I’d seen photographs before, but to be able to stand there amidst the ornate columns and red and white brickwork was a wonderful experience. Volunteers from the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway shared the story of its construction and use, including a rather brilliant urban legend that had grown up, which suggested that Italian stonemasons had been brought over to craft the subway, whereas our very own Victorian builders and workers were behind it – the misconception probably stemmed from people hearing about the Italianate style of some of the architectural features.
It is easy to see why people might have had trouble reconciling the idea of black waist-coated, roll-sleeved 19th century English brickies with the creation of something quite so gorgeously elaborate. But then this building belongs to the era of Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras, Manchester Town Hall and the Templeton’s Carpet Factory in Glasgow.
So rather than a functional ticket-hall and underground walkway, the Victorians gave us a strikingly exotic structure, a palace beneath a palace, that seems closer to the Medina Azahara in Cordoba, than Sydenham Hill. And yet, fantastically, here it is, awaiting the next chapter of its history behind a set of locked iron gates, beneath a busy stretch of the A212.
Links & References
All That Is Solid Melts into Air
The Experience of Modernity
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BBC News feature on the subway