Even if you’re new to south London, you will have heard of The Crystal Palace, as the name lives on in the park, station, football club and area of Upper Norwood SE19 more commonly known nowadays as Crystal Palace. The famous glass palace, designed by the multi-talented Chatsworth House gardener Joseph Paxton, was originally built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Three years later it was taken down and rebuilt on Sydenham Hill, and there it stood until it was destroyed by a fire in 1936. Not much can be seen of the iconic building and grounds apart from some of the rather worn-out garden terraces and the sphinx statues in the park. There is however one very-well preserved relic which is rarely on public view – the Crystal Palace Subway.
In order to cater for the visitors who made their way to The Crystal Palace, two railway stations were built: the Low Level, which is the existing station today, and the High Level station, closed in 1954. The High Level station was served by a branch line from Nunhead which passed through Honor Oak on its route before entering two tunnels, the Crescent Wood Tunnel, with its entrance in Sydenham Hill Wood, and the Paxton Tunnel, whose south portal can be seen in Spinney Gardens, below the junction of Crystal Palace Parade and College Road. The station occupied the area now covered by the housing area of Spinney Gardens and Bowley Lane and the visitors arriving there could walk to the Palace using the subway beneath Crystal Palace Parade.
It’s quite the grandest subway you can imagine, described on one website as a ‘like a Byzantine crypt’, which is not far off the mark. It was designed by the architect and surveyor to Dulwich College and designer of Dulwich Park, Charles Barry Jnr. whose father, Sir Charles Barry, had designed the Big Ben clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. As you can see in the photos, the pillars and patterned brickwork make the subway an architectural gem and it was in fact Grade II listed by English Heritage in 1972.
The subway is rarely open nowadays, but the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway were formed in 2010 to work with the two local authorities governing the site, Bromley and Southwark, to allow more regular public access, and the Friends hope to incorporate this in the proposed upgrade of the park by Bromley Council. Last year the subway was open for London Open House in September and also for an arts and crafts Christmas market when we went along. After queuing for a few minutes we went down some steps near the bus stop on Crystal Palace Parade opposite the park. The entrance is unremarkable and gives nothing away of what lies behind; when you first walk in it really is quite breath-taking.
Hopefully, the public will soon be able to see this amazing place on a more regular basis and we wish the Friends every success in their project.
See the Crystal Palace Museum website for more info and history of The Crystal Palace.