The Capital Ring – Beckenham Junction to Crystal Palace Part Two

Dear Readers, now that we are suitably fuelled after our visit to the Pride of Venice café yesterday we head up Penge High Street under two railway bridges towards Crystal Palace Park. This first rather unprepossessing bridge carries one of the oldest railway lines in London and takes trains from London Bridge station to the South Coast. It formed part of the London and Croydon Railway, and when it was built in 1839 it operated by something called ‘atmospheric traction’, which my Capital Ring guide describes as ‘ (the trains) being vacuum-drawn through a continuous pipe’. This sounds very space-age to me, and indeed the trains were not in the pipe (as I had first thought), but the pipe was used as a power source. You can read all about it here, and I have even found an etching showing the locomotive-less carriages, and the pumping station that was used to create the vacuum at Norwood Station on the London and Croydon line.

The ‘Atmospheric Railway’ at Norwood Junction (then called Jolly Sailor station)

The next bridge is much grander, and dates to 1854 – it was built to ferry people to Crystal Palace station, of which more shortly. You will see that a very fine pigeon is using it as a roosting/nesting place.

The 1854 bridge

And then we enter Crystal Palace Park. The Crystal Palace was a glass and steel creation, three times the volume of St Paul’s Cathedral, and originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, which took place in Hyde Park. The whole structure was moved to what was then Penge Place, next to Sydenham Hill, but which was quickly renamed ‘Crystal Palace’.

The Crystal Palace after its reconstruction in Penge

The venue became London’s major exhibition space, hosting everything from circuses to dog shows, Handel concerts to the first ever display of flushing toilets. Alas, it never managed to turn a profit in spite of its many visitors, and in 1911 the company that owned Crystal Palace declared bankruptcy. The building was taken into public ownership, and in 1920 it became the site of the first Imperial War Museum, before the museum was moved to Lambeth. Gradually, the Crystal Palace was renovated and restored, and by the end of the 1920s it was turning a profit.

In 1936, the manager of the site, Sir Henry Buckland, was walking his dog with his daughter Crystal (!) when he noticed a red glow coming from inside the building. He entered to find two employees fighting a small fire that had started after an explosion in the Ladies Cloakroom. They were unable to extinguish it and, in spite of the presence of 89 fire engines and 400 firefighters, neither was anyone else.

Crystal Palace fire, 1936

100,000 people gathered on Sydenham Hill to watch the fire, which is said to have been visible from eight counties. Sir Winston Churchill said that ‘This is the end of an age’, and so it was. But, as we shall see, some remnants from the Crystal Palace do live on.

We walk up past the café (showing considerable fortitude by not stopping for another coffee) and are greeted by these creatures.

An Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus)

The ancient animals in Crystal Palace Park date back to 1854, and were designed and sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the guidance of scientist Sir Richard Owens. Although we know a lot more about what dinosaurs etc would have looked like these days, these models were based on the most up to date scientific knowledge of the time, and were a wonder of the age when they were first exhibited. The dinosaurs were extremely popular, to the extent that small models were sold to children and other interested Victorians, but the full-size animals were very expensive to produce, and so some creatures were never made, including, to my eternal sadness, the giant armadillo or glyptodon.

However, what remains is now Grade I listed, and many of the creatures have recently been renovated. Clearly the Irish elk is waiting for some antler repair and a new coat of paint, however, and I fear that, in such a prominent position, some eejit will always be wanting to swing from the antlers.

The other creatures are positioned on less accessible islands, and are faring rather better. In the original design the level of the lake would have gone up and down, revealing more or less of the animals which would have been very interesting. Furthermore, the planting, with lots of Aracuarias and (my favourite) swamp cypress trees, makes for an evocative setting.

The Iguanodons are the first large dinosaurs that the visitors see. Sadly, Owen thought that a thumb-bone which had been found could be a small horn, seen here on the Iguanodon’s nose (though even Owen described this as ‘doubtful’. The nose horn has  caused much hilarity amongst later scientists, who can be an unfeeling bunch.


The Megalosaurus is depicted here as being a quadruped, but we now know that it was more likely to be bipedal, something discovered in 1858, just after the model was completed. I love the way that the dinosaur is becoming an ecosystem all of its own.


There is a range of aquatic dinosaurs and other creatures. Owen thought that the large eyes of the Ichthyosaurus meant that it had good night/underwater vision. This one is depicted basking like a giant many-toothed seal, but in reality they were totally aquatic.


The plesiosaurs are thought to have unnaturally flexible necks by current day scientists. The teleosaurs, on the other hand, are pretty accurate – Owen conjectured that they would resemble modern-day crocodilians such as the gharial of India.

Plesiosaurus at the front, teleosaurus at the back.

A small group of Labyrinthodons are tucked away at the corner of the island – Owen thought that they would resemble giant frogs in body shape, though we now know that they looked more like salamanders. They look just the right size to take for a walk on a leash, and they would certainly scare the life out of any rottweilers that they encountered.


And so with some reluctance we climb away from the dinosaurs. I don’t personally give a hoot that they’re not anatomically correct – I love the way that they lurk amongst the autumn colours, giving a sense that we are just part of a history that goes way back into deep time.

Swamp Cypress

And finally, we get a really good view of Crystal Palace transmitting tower, the site of the first ever television broadcast by John Logie Baird in 1933. It was the tallest structure in London (219 metres/719 feet) until the topping-out of the main tower at Canary Wharf in 1990. As an indication of how London has ‘grown up’, it’s now the eighth tallest building, the tallest being The Shard at 310 metres/1016 feet.

And so, we complete our walk via Crystal Palace Station, which was built to accommodate the many thousands who visited the Crystal Palace, and which is still a very impressive station. But our train was due as we arrived, so no time for photos. I shall take a few at the start of our next walk, which will take us from Crystal Palace to Streatham. However, as there is a train strike next Saturday, that will probably be in a fortnight. Who knows what we will get up to next week?

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