26 December 2021
Just a short bus ride away is Crystal Palace Park, a huge park that is famous for more than being the home of the Crystal Palace Football Club stadium. I have absolutely no interest in the football club, but there are two other good reasons for our visit today.
I want to see the first dinosaur sculptures in the world. Opened in 1854, some thirty years after dinosaur fossils had been first discovered, they were designed and sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the scientific direction of Sir Richard Owen. Despite being incorrect by modern standards, they had represented the latest scientific knowledge of the time.
There is currently a light show and exhibition of magical and mythical creatures, which happens each evening during the holiday period and we follow a trail of fantastical, coloured objects down to an island in a lake where thirty full-scale, three-dimensional dinosaurs sculptures reside. The path winds down a gentle hill and around a well-designed bend, between palms and other exotic plants, where an array of large sculptures become visible along the waterline. Creatures that are barely recognisable as dinosaurs or other extinct animals, but provide an interesting perspective nonetheless. Information boards provide details of the dinosaurs and include depictions of the science of 1854 and our current knowledge.
I'm fascinated, but at the same time glad that somebody somewhere decided it was a good thing to retain and maintain these original sculptures for the past 167 years. Rather than being relegated to a warehouse somewhere to rot because they are no longer representative of the creatures, they are instead, celebrated as part of history. I love them.
We make our way up to the area in which the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition was relocated in 1854 - the same time as the dinosaurs were installed. Built on the top of a hill on which terraces had been built and overlooking the entire park, nothing remains of Crystal Palace as it was destroyed by a massive fire on 30 November 1936.
We walk up the central stairs of the terraces and try to imagine the building that once stood at the top of the hill. Being constructed entirely of glass and cast iron, I can almost see it shimmering in the sunshine, reflecting the colours surrounding it. There are other remnants: sphinxes, statues, and jardinieres. But of the original relocated building, nothing remains.
I would have liked to have been able to visit the railway station subway, which was opened in 1865 after the relocation of the Crystal Palace, as the cavernous site is a work of art; red and white brick domes and columns, which were allegedly built by Italian bricklayers and stonemasons. Used during World War II as an air-raid shelter, it was closed in 1954. Currently, there are no plans to renovate and reopen the subway. As usual, there are more important priorities for the available funds.
Sometimes we forget that whether history is perceived to be bad or good, it is more important that we can view the remnants of events that have passed and celebrate those that are yet to come. The dinosaurs may not be scientifically correct by our standards, but these Crystal Palace dinosaurs are concrete evidence of a desire to share recent discoveries. And although the Crystal Palace may have disappeared from view, there remains the relics of a once-grand building that has, in the past, housed some of the most astonishing exhibitions.
As we make our way down to a cafe close to both the park and our bus stop, we reflect on the things we have seen and are glad we have had the opportunity to visit this wonderful place.
Title Quote by Colin Mochrie