A Guided Tour in London
Sometimes we should all explore the amazing places that we have outside our front door rather than venture abroad to foreign countries. By luck I received a guided tour to Crystal Palace Park and town as a gift and while I am not a huge fan of guided tours I thought we should give it a go as you can always be pleasantly surprised.
Meeting our Local Guddy Guide
After the investment in the new orange line on the tube map creating the Overground line in London it has been much easier to access Crystal Palace and other parts south of the river compared to before. Our meeting point for the tour was conveniently in front of the train station and our guide Davide was already waiting for us. His girlfriend Elisa, a yoga teacher, came and joined us for the tour as well. We immediately felt comfortable with both of them and started chatting about life and London. Davide is a part of the Triple Team, and would lead us for the afternoon. He showed us into Crystal Palace Park, which is directly connected to the station. In fact the station was originally built to service the Great Exhibition in the park in the 1800s. The station has been fully restored as part of the Overground network renovations and has a superb vaulted roof.
The National Sports Centre
Entering the park across the bridge straight away we saw the National Sports Centre and Athletics Stadium. The first of its kind to combine the two in one Sports Park concept in the UK and has only recently been surpassed by the Olympic site in east London. Nowadays the wear and tear is very visible and sadly it is not used as often as it must have been in its hay days. Ever since the Olympics in London it has been used less as the Olympic Stadium and Pool took its rank.
The Children’s Farm
Jerome had spotted some sheep in a padlock, part of the Children’s Farm. We did not expect much from the farm as we sometimes used to visit the little farm in Coram’s Fields, which was a huge disappointment for someone like me who grew up in the countryside. However, the Children’s Farm in Crystal Palace not only is larger in size, it has a larger variety of animals on show and even a room with exotic beasts. We first looked at the bunnies, chicken and other usual farm animals on display. Some of the animals have funny names like Ninja and Gerda, sadly most did not seem to be interested in any form of the visitors and were hiding in their huts.
The Exotic Room
Stepping into the exotic room (only open 12-14:00) the hot air and the smell of animals hit us like a wall. In the terrariums we searched for chameleons, tarantulas, snakes and other reptiles. At the far end of the room were some aquariums with colourful fish, including puffers and goldfish. The sticky air in the room stopped us from admiring the animals for longer and we were glad to be back outside. The Children’s Farm certainly is not as exciting as London Zoo but it is free to visit, well equipped and a captivating place for kids to learn more about animals. Note it is closed on Wednesdays.
The Famous Dinosaurs
Leaving the farm behind us we strolled down the hill where we discovered the dinosaurs. How could it be that I had missed out on London’s own Jurassic Park for so long? The model dinosaurs were created by the founder of the Natural History Museum and were erected in 1854 when the park opened its doors to the public. They were the first portrayal of life sized dinosaurs in the world and have been enjoyed by generations ever since. The creatures are set amidst the lakeshore and vegetation, which makes them appear like they are in their own wild natural habitat. Some of the dinosaurs showed the tooth of time and had plants growing out of the cracks in the plaster. Others looked like they were just undergoing surgery by the conservation doctor, while others were already restored and even had received a coat of colourful paint.
Admiring Them From Afar
I am sure kids would love to climb these sculptures but they are fenced in for the obvious reason that they would get damaged beyond repair otherwise. Admiring them from afar was still amazing and if you want to find out more about each type of dinosaur there are boards with details of their names, features and what they would look like on current knowledge, rather than in 1854. We could have looked at the dinosaurs for ages and it was lovely to watch the other kids gaze at the animals with awe, despite some of them looking quite scary, but we decided to move on through the park as there was still more ground to be covered on our tour.
Stroll through the Crystal Palace Park
Next to the dinosaurs was a lake with a pedalo hire station, not the fun swan pedaloes we had in Prague, however another fun activity for kids and adults alike should you visit. Further on the vast lawns of the park were filled with families and other people enjoying a warm afternoon. We noticed a few groups having barbeques and even children’s parties with balloons and other celebratory decorations in the trees and on the grass, the playgrounds were full of happy, screaming kids. Jerome noticed a little pagoda with two Japanese looking fish with a bell hanging from their tail. Shame there was no information about it and Davide our guide had no clue either but it must have some interesting history… Shortly after we passed the back of the National Sports Hall that houses a large swimming pool complex where Chris used to take part in swimming competitions when he was younger.
Hidden behind some trees, and without Davide we probably would have walked past it, we found ourselves lost in the Maze, literally. The Maze is one of the largest in the country and is made with towering hedges grown from beech saplings, even Chris was too short to look over the hedges. Wandering the paths we were truly immersed with the challenge of trying to find the centre and the way out. We kept turning corners thinking that surely this must be the way but we were wrong and ended up at another dead end or back to where we had already been before. After a lot of trial and error, there was no logic behind it, no keep the hedge to your left and we would eventually get there. I have to say it was one of the best mazes I have explored and I like the fact that there was no map displayed anywhere to find out the way to its centre easier. Not quite as when in the end we finally reached the middle, the map of the maze was engraved onto the stone floor of the centre zone. Younger kids were running along the paths, trying to find the right way in on the mini maze.
The Concert Bowl
A large rusty, metal sculpture caught my eye once we were back outside in the park. Our tour guide informed us that it is the Concert Bowl that looks like a laptop with a stage at the front, surrounded by an overgrown pond. This weird sculpture was a fairly new addition to the park but the stage under it was used in the summer garden parties that were held between 1971 and 1980. Famous bands like Pink Floyd, The beach Boys and Santana played gigs there.
The Remains of Crystal Palace
Walking up the hill we finally reached the heart of the park, the remains of where Crystal Palace itself once stood before it burned down in 1936. The palace was the largest glasshouse to have been built at the time, and originally stood in Hyde Park for the World Exhibition in 1851. Three years later it was moved and reconstructed on the grounds of Peng Estate at Sydenham Hill, which has become the park. Nowadays only the stone arches, stairs, some headless sculptures and a few Sphinx are the sole remains of the amazing building. It is sad to see them falling into disrepair and we can only hope that someone will invest the money to keep this historical part of London for future generations. Some of you might recognise the stairs from the film “The Italian Job” with Michael Caine. The area has also featured in more recent music videos. The Sphinx statues were easy to climb and Jerome and I took the chance for a photo opportunity.
Abandoned Underground Train Station
Before leaving the park Davide showed us an enclosed area, where an underground train station is hidden and abandoned – the Crystal Palace Subway. The station provided a direct access to the Palace for the privileged, while the rest of the public had to use a different station and walk up the hill. The now unused train station is an architectural highlight, with a two- tone Byzantine ceiling, it is one of London’s true hidden gems and is only open a few times a year.
Crystal Palace Triangle
For the last part of our tour we wandered along the streets of the Crystal Palace Triangle, first along Westow Hill where we were wowed by the views from the corners of the roads towards the City and North of London. We could see the skyscrapers of the City and even the London Eye. The high street was lined with many independent shops, cute cafes and restaurants. Turning left onto Westow Street and then left again on Church Road we completed the triangle and our tour. I have to admit that the tour was very enjoyable and we had a great afternoon exploring a different part of London. Thanks to Davide for his lively descriptions of his locality.
Vintage Shopper’s Paradise
I would have loved to try the food at Mi Cocina Es Tuya, a Venezuelan restaurant and apparently the best in town, after having savoured dishes from the South American country during our trip to Mexico last year. I also would like to wander from shop to shop, looking at the clothes, second hand furniture and Haynes Lane Market, a treasure trove and hoarders paradise over two floors. Crystal Palace is still one of those rare places in London where you can pick up a vintage bargain at a reasonable price, a true vintage shopper’s paradise. In some ways it reminded me a lot of Margate’s little lanes too. Crystal Palace we will definitely be back soon!