Off the tourist track: Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I had one of those excellent London moments a few weeks ago.  On a grey Sunday morning I went for a quick bike ride up Crystal Palace Hill to the big park there.  I'd done the climb before, past the last remaining toll gate in London, in operation since 1789.  Cars and trucks pay £1 to pass.  Bikes get through for free!

Toll Road
The tollbooth.

Toll Road
And the almost hidden sign

Once I made it up the hill (one of the highest points in London, hence the two large transmitting towers up there) I cycled aimlessly around Crystal Palace Park for a bit.  The park is named after the now-destroyed Crystal Palace, which was an enormous glass and iron building first designed and erected for the Great Exhibition of 1851.  The building was such a success that in 1854 it was moved from its original site at Hyde Park to an area at Sydenham Hill, the area which is now known mostly as Crystal Palace.  The palace, which was enlarged when it was moved, was destroyed by fire in 1936 (though quite how a building that's all iron and glass - not traditionally highly flammable materials - succumbs to fire is not a topic Wikipedia addresses).  Nevertheless, the park itself is one of London's largest, and still retains a lot of the architecture and features that were added when it was a popular attraction for Victorian Londoners.

London, Crystal Palace, vintage photo of the reconstruction of the earlier building erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition in 1851
The Crystal Palace in its heyday.  The wide stairs and arches you can see at the base of the building are still there, looking sort of run down and sad, as if their reason for being is gone.  Which of course it is.

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These sphinx stairs, for instance, go from a lovely patch of gravel up to a row of trees.

I cycled happily through the park, which is bigger than I first thought, until I came across one of those things that makes me glad I live here... a series of statues of huge prehistoric Irish Elk.

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Hello?  What's all this?

It turns out that, alongside the Crystal Palace itself, the park was also home to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a series of concrete sculptures of fifteen dinosaur and early mammal species that opened to the public in 1854.  They're the first dinosaur sculptures IN THE WORLD, even predating Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" by six years.  And I'd just stumbled across them on a Sunday morning bike ride.  I've said it before, but I think it bears repeating: I love this city.

I've done a bit of reading about the dinosaurs since discovering the park, but there's not a lot out there.  For instance, it's not clear where the idea for creating massive concrete sculptures of never-before-imagined creatures came from.  What is clear is that the newly-minted science of paleontology was a fascination for the Victorians.  It's also clear that the two men credited with creating the attraction are celebrated biologist and palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen, and the sculptor and natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.  Owen is the one who actually coined the term "dinosaur" and was the scientific brains behind the operation.  He was noted for his ability to interpret fossils though, as we'll learn, he got it wrong in many ways.  Nevertheless, with Owen providing the overall instruction and Hawkins sculpting and filling in the gaps by comparing Owen's ideas with the anatomy of modern animals, they managed to create a remarkable series of sculptures that were hugely popular with the Victorian public.

Iguanodons
The iguanodons, one of the more popular and less accurate depictions.  That horn on the nose is actually an incorrectly placed thumb spike.  This notion of the creature as a heavy limbed sort of elephant-like quadruped has gone through a few revisions in the last 150 years.  

Though many of the statues are quite wrong by moderns standards, they're now listed monuments and are more valuable for their insight into the Victorian notions of paleontology than they are as accurate models.  The sculptures were arranged on a series of islands roughly correlating with major prehistoric time periods.  Originally, the water level in the artificial lakes surrounding the islands rose and fell to simulate the tides, powered by massive water towers in the park.

Palaeozoic Island
The biggest island, representing the Paleozoic era.

And here's the other fantastic thing about the current state of the park - there's a free audio tour you can listen to on a smartphone by going to a website and streaming the audio as you stand there.  I did the entire tour that Sunday morning - ten stops in all - and then listened to them all again when I went back to take proper photos a week or two later.  You lucky GSWPL readers can listen to it too, though it won't be as much fun as if you're standing there. (However, paired with my Flickr set of photos, it might be a reasonable substitute for those not within striking distance of Crystal Palace.  I've made some notes on the photos so they sort of correspond to the audio tour points.  And here's a PDF map of the area so you can follow along.  GSWPL goes multimedia!)

The audio tour reveals a lot of fun details about the creation of the park.  For instance, because they're so large (they're all in the correct scale) the statues had to be created in position.  Hawkins had a workshop on site and even famously hosted a dinner party of wealthy patrons inside one of the iguanodon moulds on New Year's Eve 1853.  Hawkins also took pains to site each model on the correct type of rock and surround it with the right sort of vegetation.  He even built concrete cycads to go with his iguanodons since the modern variety of cycad wouldn't grow in the English climate.  And where the fossil record was so incomplete that even the combined efforts of Owen, Hawkins and a healthy dose of good old Victorian ill-founded assumption couldn't come up with enough information to go on, they found ways of getting around things.  For instance, the mososaurus is posed partially submerged because they had no notion of what the back end should look like.  And they had no record of the hylaeosaurus head, so that one is simply positioned with its head away from the viewer.

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Tricky!

As I mentioned, the dinosaurs were a big hit with the public.  Darwin himself had a season's ticket to the display and though the admission price was a shockingly high one guineau more than two million people visited per year.  (As near as I can discover, that's about £60 in today's money which is about the cost of a one day ticket to Disneyland, so not really out of the ballpark I suppose.)  The dinosaur park was also the first to branch out into merchandising, with posters and sets of small models of the dinosaurs on offer for £30 (for educational purposes).

The park even incorporated a few living models, though obviously not of dinosaurs.  They imported a group of Derbyshire lead miners who worked at "mining" a cave built into a stratified cliffside and paying visitors could walk inside the cave.

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The stratified cliffside.  No Derbyshire (or Any-shire) miners in evidence

A total of fifteen species are represented in the park, though others were planned, including the woolly mammoth and dodo.  Sadly, as is the way of these things, the budgets overran and the work was stopped when costs reached about £14,000.  The park itself gradually fell into disarray following the destruction of the Crystal Palace, and was mostly closed to the public by the end of the 20th century.  Happily, in 2002 a major restoration took place and it's now leafy and lovely (though there are still large sections of crumbly architecture up where the Crystal Palace used to be).  Foliage surrounding the statues was cut back and the dinosaurs themselves were extensively rehabilitated, with some being completely remade in fibreglass.  With the addition of the audio tour, it's a thoroughly satisfying diversion, especially since it's completely free (now).  It's also very close to Crystal Palace rail station, which is linked to the recently completed "Ginger Line" of the London Overground system.  Crystal Palace Station is also quite nice - I suspect that's a hangover from the heyday of the Palace and Park.  And there's now a perfectly lovely little cafe inside the station that does a very credible flat white coffee in big mugs, and a sort of chewy caramel slice thing that was exactly perfect.

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were an excellent find - all the more so because they were so totally unexpected, which is one of my favourite things about London.  The proliferation of random excellent things coupled with the likelihood of finding a really good café within close proximity is an unbeatable combination, and one that London has pretty much aced.  I'm going to miss that when I get to Moscow*, but leaving will make it that much sweeter to come back.

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Me and few dicynodons in the background.


* Brief update: My visa is now being processed!  No flight yet, but at least I'm making progress.

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