Sunday 30 December 2018

Cabinet of Curiosities - a Baby Dinosaur

A few months ago I wrote on this blog about an ending for me – finishing my life as a civil servant. Since then I've had another ending – and, excitingly, a new beginning – because I've moved from London to Brighton.

I’ve lived in London all my adult life and in Crystal Palace for nearly fourteen years. It has been a wonderful place to live. I’ve always loved its history and the sense of community and shared identity that brings, and I’ll miss it very much. 

Me on Dinosaur Island, Crystal Palace Park
Photo: L O'Sullivan 
Crystal Palace wasn’t always known as such. But after the success of the Great Exhibition in 1851 it was decided to rebuild Joseph Paxton’s masterpiece on a permanent site, and run it as a commercial enterprise. A commanding position on top of a ridge in south London on the borders of Upper Norwood, Penge and Sydenham was chosen, the Palace rebuilt and a new identity forged.

It became the defining feature of the area, bringing millions of people to visit and live over the next 80 years and changing it forever. Two train stations were built to manage the influx of visitors. Many of the bus routes in south London end in Crystal Palace even now because of the number of people who wanted to get to the attraction. And, as across London, huge numbers of houses were built, but in this case many of them were large and beautiful villas for the well-to-do, wanting to live in this now-fashionable spot.

The Crystal Palace burned down in a catastrophic fire in 1936. The site of the Palace and grounds is now the local park. You can see the foundations of the Palace at the top of the hill, complete with a few of the original statues. There are two more complete reminders of the heyday of the Crystal Palace, however, which I have especially loved while living here:
The Megalosaurus, striding through the
autumn foliage. Photo C. Wightwic

1) The Dinosaurs. I’ve written about them before, but I make no bones (boom boom) about doing so again. Declaring an Interest, I’m now on the Board of the charity that works to promote and conserve the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (most of which aren’t actually Dinosaurs, but hey…) They were built in the 1850s as an attraction in the grounds of Crystal Palace and were the first ever life sized sculptures of dinosaurs (and other extinct creatures) anywhere in the world. The sculptures were created at the dawn of dinosaur palaeontology, taking into account the cutting-edge science of the day. We obviously know much more now, so many of them look weird and ‘wrong’ to our eyes. From the point of view of the history of science, therefore, they are a testament to how our knowledge changes and grows with each generation. For the general viewer today, their ‘wrongness’ adds to their charm.

2) The Subway. This gorgeous subterranean space isn’t often open to the public, although the Friends of the Subway are doing an amazing job to provide occasional access days. One of the last remnants of the Crystal Palace and its associated infrastructure, the subway was the passageway between the ‘high level’ train station and the great Crystal Palace itself. The red-and-white patterned space is all that remains of the high level station, but gives an impression of the grandeur and excitement of a visit to one of the greatest spectacles of the age. 

The Subway in 2017. Photo: C.Wightwick
So, what to take to Brighton as part of my ever-expanding Cabinet of Curiosities? Well, the Ruling History Girl wasn’t very impressed a few months ago when I tried to bring a life-sized sculpture of a naked man into the Cabinet (apparently he wouldn’t fit) so I don’t suppose I can get away with a life-sized Dinosaur either. And I wouldn’t want to take them out of their natural habitat, even virtually. In designing the Dinosaurs, smaller maquettes were made, about 1/8th size of the final pieces. None of them survive, to our knowledge. But if they did, maybe I could fit one of those into the Cabinet?

Find out more at:

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs:

The Crystal Palace Subway:


abigail brieson said...

Such a beautiful place to be leaving, along with your dinosaur friends. But I'm certain there are wonderful adventures ahead. Very important work you're doing to keep these bits from our past secure.

Ruan Peat said...

Fond memories of pushing a pushchair round following my oldest as he raced from dinosaur to dinosaur! back in the 90's.

Raymond Smith said...

Thanks for this wonderful article! I live in USA and am always interested in history and sites like the park you described. Do to economics this is as close as I will ever get. Thank You for helping to protect this park for future generations to see.

Enjoy your recent move and I am confident your future will be exciting and filled with new adventures. May you have good health and write many more articles for all to read.

Marcheline said...

There should always be room in one's cabinet for a life-sized naked man. Just sayin'. 8-)

Marcheline said...

Loved this post (dinosaurs!!), and also wanted to send a huge THANK YOU for your blog list, in which I found "seven miles of steel thistles".... AWESOME!!